Religious groups claim proposed religious protections in draft legislation for marriage equality do not go far enough unless everyone can discriminate against same-sex couples.
In the last sitting week before the end of year break, Labor, the Greens and the crossbench established a Senate committee to assess the government’s proposed amendment to the Marriage Act it had released before the same-sex marriage plebiscite legislation was shot down by the Senate. Although the plebiscite is now dead, buried and cremated, the inquiry is essentially set up to keep momentum going and to ultimately pressure the government into passing the bill of its choice now.
The most controversial component of the proposed amendments exempt religious officiants, as well as marriage celebrants, from having to officiate same-sex weddings if it is against their beliefs, as well as an exemption for what is broadly defined as “religious” businesses. This clause is controversial for both sides of the debate, with those opposed to marriage equality arguing the protections don’t go far enough, while those in favour of marriage equality say that exemptions for non-religious celebrants are unnecessary. Submissions to the inquiry were due on Friday, and in some of the first released publicly by the committee, religious groups — after making their usual point that the Marriage Act should not be changed — claim the protections aren’t enough.
FamilyVoice Australia argues that changing the Marriage Act is “Orwellian”, and that any law that requires exemptions for religious people is a “bad law”. FamilyVoice says religious freedom would be in “grave danger”, because the religious exemptions in the law could be removed later. The group also argues the current exemptions don’t go far enough because people who are religious in any profession should be exempt. Cake bakers, according to FamilyVoice, “have been a favourite target of homosexual activists”, as well as wedding venues and photographers.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia claimed the legislation was trying to “change the unchangeable” and also argued that people should be able to deny same-sex couples their services if they genuinely believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
Wilberforce Foundation — a group of conservative lawyers — claimed that changing the Marriage Act would “subjugate the freedoms” of 78% of Australians who claim to be religious to 1-2% of Australians who identify as gay.
Australian Marriage Equality, on the other hand, has argued that the legislation is too specific in exempting people from officiating same-sex weddings, and it should be broadened to allow any religious official to be able to refuse to perform any wedding ceremony against their beliefs. The group also argued it would set a “dangerous precedent” if people were allowed to deny services based on “conscientious belief” alone, rather than on the grounds of their religion. It was also impractical to allow celebrants to also be exempt from the changes, the group said:
“Apart from the issue of principle and the dangerous precedent that this would set, there is the practical issue for residents in rural and regional Australia where the choice of civil celebrants may be very limited. Civil celebrants exist to act on behalf of the Commonwealth for all people — including same-sex couples in rural and regional Australia.”
Transgender Victoria similarly rejected the proposed exemptions for businesses and celebrants, and said it was time to change the Marriage Act:
“We believe that for too long moralistic nanny-state attitudes have delayed marriage equality for Australian couples and stopped increases in freedom and equality for Australia overall, with damage to our reputation internationally.”
Shelley Argent, the national spokesperson for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, says the main religious objections to same-sex marriage are about children, but that ignores the fact that same-sex couples already do and will continue to have children regardless of whether marriage equality becomes law. PFLAG says if anything, religious groups should be encouraging same-sex couples with children to marry for the emotional security of children.
More submissions are expected to be published in the coming days, both sides of the debate rallied their troops to make submissions to the inquiry, with the committee due to report back to Parliament in just over a month. Crikey understands that groups have yet to be asked to attend hearings. In order to encourage the Coalition to allow a free vote on the matter, Labor and the crossbench agreed to allow the committee to have a majority of Coalition senators on it. It is chaired by South Australian Liberal Senator David Fawcett, who is opposed to same-sex marriage and in favour of strong exemptions for religious businesses.
“I am a strong supporter of traditional marriage. That does not mean in any way that I am homophobic, or that I speak with hate. I know and deeply respect many people who I regard as friends who are same-sex attracted, but my world view is that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Fawcett said in a speech in Parliament in 2015.
In addition to the Labor senators, marriage equality supporters James Paterson and Dean Smith are also on the committee. The participating membership seems highly weighted with opponents to marriage equality, with senators including Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi, Jacinta Collins, Ian Macdonald and Barry O’Sullivan listed as participating members on the committee, along with supporters Penny Wong, Doug Cameron, Lisa Singh and Kim Carr.