Cake bakers and photographers should be exempt from having to do work on same-sex marriages, but taxi drivers should have to take same-sex couples to weddings, a parliamentary committee has heard.

The houses of Parliament are quiet for another week and a half, but committee work is well underway, with the Senate select committee examining the government’s proposed changes to marriage law holding three hearings this week. Liberal senators David Fawcett, Dean Smith and James Paterson, along with Labor senators Louise Pratt and Kimberley Kitching, have been in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra taking evidence 

While marriage equality inquiries have come and gone before with no change happening, this one is different for one big reason: it is not concerned with whether marriage equality should happen, but about specific legislation proposed by the government to change the law with special exemptions for celebrants and religious businesses to not have to be involved with same-sex weddings if the concept is against their beliefs.

The two sides in this instance are arguing that the exemptions go too far, or that they don’t go far enough.

For conservatives and religious organisations appearing before the inquiry, most still argue the law should not be changed at all, with FamilyVoice’s David Phillips on Wednesday comparing marriage law to the law of gravity — not something that can be changed. But in the event that the law was changed, there needed to be broad exemptions for any individual in Australia to not be caught up in anti-discrimination cases just because they objected to being involved in same-sex weddings. While some want anyone with an objection to be excused from participating, others draw a line. Venues and bakers and photographers should be able to turn down work on same-sex weddings because they are intrinsically involved in the ceremony, but those with a minor involvement should not be exempt, they argue. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s Peter Comensoli, for example, said that a taxi driver driving someone to a wedding should not be exempt, and neither should a photographer for an anniversary party or a birthday for an LGBTI person be exempt, but that photographer should be exempt from having to work the wedding ceremony itself:

“I would not see there would be any need to protect individual consciences there. In many of the overseas cases, as I said, the bakers and the photographers already had pre-existing commercial relationships with the gay people who were their clients. It is not a right to discriminate against gay people generally; it is a right not to participate against conscience.”

Those opposed to the exemptions say it is unnecessary and unfairly targets same-sex couples when other people in society, like other races, or older people, do not also have similar exemptions. PFLAG’s national spokesperson Shelley Argent pointed out the hypocrisy:

“I would like to know whether my son can refuse to support or provide his service to a Christian who has rejected his right to marry? My son was a policeman. So he could hang them out to dry. He is now a paramedic. So he could leave them on the road and say ‘I don’t think I have to pick you up because it’s my right.’ They would not like that but they are saying whether my son, and the sons and daughters of the other mother sitting here, has the right to marry. So I think it should work two ways.”

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Martin Iles, who works for the Human Rights Alliance legal fund set up by the ACL, defended the lobby group’s submission in which it argued against the ALP’s national platform proposing to ban parents from sending their LGBTI children to psychologically damaging gay conversion therapies. Iles said that gay conversion therapy was not the “base and thrust” of the lobby group’s concern with the proposed ban but said it could be a wider ban. When pushed by Pratt, Iles avoided the question, instead suggesting that the government should not intervene in the “parent-child relationship”. Iles said the issue was beyond the topic of religious freedom, to which Pratt questioned why it was in the ACL’s submission at all. Iles replied that it was to demonstrate that the “tentacles” of marriage extend widely in society and that changing the definition would have wider impacts — implying that if LGBTI people’s relationships are accepted, then parents sending their kids to “pray away the gay” would likely be banned.

One highlight of the hearing was well-known anti-gay doctor David van Gend quoting a study and suggesting that it came to the conclusion that same-sex parenting was not the same as heterosexual parenting:

“That is an important admission, because it is a standard political slogan that there is no difference for children raised in same-sex households. That is spin.”

Smith later quoted van Gend’s lines back to him in full context showing the report’s conclusion that same-sex families were supportive environments for children:

“So you have selectively quoted from the conclusion of that report … And if you would like to qualify your statement, you are free to provide us with some additional information by the end of the week. But that statement, that full paragraph, is found at the conclusion of that report.”

The committee is due to report back to Parliament early next month, but the government has given no indication whether it intends to proceed with the draft legislation it released as part of the planning for the plebiscite, which the Senate blocked late last year.

Peter Fray

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