Bill Shorten says it is a “distraction” for defenders of traditional marriage to claim that same-sex marriage will threaten religious freedom in Australia. According to the nominal leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign, the real question to be decided at the plebiscite is purely whether the right to marry should be extended to same-sex couples.
Australian believers of many faiths are rightly sceptical. LGTBQI activists and ‘marriage equality campaigners told the 2017 parliamentary enquiry that any religious exemptions from same-sex marriage for civil celebrants and wedding-related businesses would be humiliating and degrading. There is also concern about international precedents; such as in Sweden, where the Social Democrat Prime Minister said in June that Church of Sweden clergy should no longer be exempt from wedding same-sex couples.
Nevertheless, Shorten could transform the question of religious freedom into a genuine non-issue simply by promising that a comprehensive religious freedom plank will be included in the ALP platform. This would commit future Labor governments to retain in the Marriage Act not only protections for priests and ministers, but also for the proverbial Christian bakeries and other service providers holding religious and conscientious objections to same-sex marriage.
But Labor leader could ever promise to guarantee religious freedom without being lynched by the left for condoning prejudice and discrimination. Shorten’s ‘nothing to see here’ attitude towards religious freedom is a tactical ploy. It is designed to return the plebiscite debate to the preferred ‘Yes’ narrative of a progressive crusade to advance gay and lesbian rights, and overcome the alleged bigotry and homophobia of marriage traditionalists — without regard for the rights of anyone else.
Disregard for the values and perspectives of those who are opposed to same-sex marriage has long been a hallmark of LGTBQI activists. The lack of concern for how extending the rights of one group may restrict the rights of other groups not only epitomises the narcissism at root of all forms of contemporary identity politics. It also highlights the ill-liberal nature of activist-driven ‘marriage equality’ cause.
The scant interest in the rights of others is in stark contrast to the attitude displayed by marriage traditionalists. When the Howard government amended the Marriage Act in 2004 to confirm the legal definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” — with bi-partisan support — it also introduced changes to superannuation laws that granted members of same-sex relationships the right to claim their partners’ super death benefits.
This opened the way to a slew of reforms that have subsequently expanded the legal rights and protection afforded to same-sex couples. This includes the legal recognition of same-sex unions now provided for under legislation in six states and territories. At the federal level in 2008 and 2009, wide-ranging reforms guaranteed equal entitlements and responsibilities for same-sex couples in relation to social security, veterans’ affairs, employment, taxation, superannuation, immigration, and workers compensation.
The legal equality extended to same-sex couples has reached the point that in the words of the Parliamentary Library, there are “fewer and fewer rights and obligations attached to married couples which do not attach to de facto couples—a status currently encompassing same-sex couples in most legal context”.
The extension of equal legal rights for same-sex couples has generated little controversy and virtually no parliamentary or community opposition — even from those marriage traditionalists theologically opposed to homosexuality, and those atheists personally opposed to same-sex marriage. This is in keeping with the evolution of modern social attitudes and weakening of communal prejudices that began with the de-criminalisation of homosexuality, and shows that few people these days have any serious desire to use the law to punish homosexuals such as by denying same-sex relationships a legal standing that is ‘as good as marriage’.
Australians, including religious believers, have hereby demonstrated a willingness to live and let live alongside others, even if they disagree about personal and moral questions pertaining to sexuality. This is an example of the ‘fair go’ attitude that must prevail in truly civil and liberal democratic societies, where compromise is often required on issues involving conflicting interests and competing rights. Marriage traditionalists have protected the meaning of marriage in Australia; but they have not opposed protecting and extending the rights of same-sex couples. Marriage traditionalists have not denied legal status and substance to same-sex relationships other than the use of the term ‘marriage’ — and for valid reasons in defence of religious freedom.
Compare such practical tolerance with the intolerant attitude of ‘marriage equality’ advocates. The assertion that same-sex marriage is a ‘human right’ obliterates consideration of the legal and human rights of religious believers. The best measure we have of the genuine threat same-sex marriage poses to religious freedom are the statements made by Liberal MP and former Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson. He claims the only way to protect religious freedom is to ensure a Coalition government passes a same-sex marriage bill through parliament that will include (limited) religious exemptions for faith-based organisations (but not for Christian bakeries). This is because, Wilson argues, a Shorten Labor government is sure to pass a same-sex marriage bill sans any religious protections at all.
To say the least, this is very weak ‘liberal’ argument for voting Yes; it amounts to a transactional rationalisation for surrendering, on terms, to the anti-religious freedom ‘marriage equality’ cause, and offers, at best, only a vestigial defence of the core liberal principles at stake. Only in tin-pot republics, and under totalitarian regimes, do changes of government threaten human rights such as religious liberty. In a free country, the protection of fundamental rights and principles such as freedom of religion should not be beholden to the inevitable turn of the electoral cycle.
It is little wonder, therefore, that defenders of traditional marriage and religious freedom have been so determined to refer the question of same-sex marriage for decision directly by the Australian people at the plebiscite.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
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