Many Australians may not be aware that there is very little legal protection for religious freedom and belief in this nation. This is the evidence that has been given by legal and constitutional experts to the Human Rights Sub-Committee inquiry into Freedom of Religion and Belief. While a robust discussion about same-sex marriage takes place in Australian society, there needs to be enough legal protection for individuals, religious organisations and churches to express their views in the public square.
Religious people have as much right as anybody else to express their opinions in the public sphere. Their objections to same-sex marriage is not to impose discrimination upon homosexual people, but they reflect a simple disagreement on what the nature of marriage is.
They are just trying to remain true to their beliefs as their consciences dictate. They are not looking for trouble. They only ask not to be coerced into violating their own consciences and religious beliefs.
But it’s not just religious people that this matters with. In our hearts, we all have a belief structures that are sacred and dear to us, and we all know what it means to violate those deeply held beliefs.
At a forum conducted by The Guardian last year, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten committed a future Labor government to repealing protections for religious freedom if they were contained in legislation to change the Marriage Act.
Labor will oppose any attempt to extend discrimination law exemptions to allow people who object to same-sex marriage to deny goods and services to gay couples.
Responding to a questioner who asked him to rule out allowing bakers not to sell cakes to gay weddings, Shorten said Labor would oppose such discrimination law exemptions and repeal them at the earliest available opportunity if they passed.
“It’s not allowed now under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”
A change to the Marriage Act would remove fundamental rights to free speech and freedom of religion. Labor’s shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, said that Labor had removed exemptions (ie protections for free speech) before and is willing to look at it again.
This is an ongoing process. Just as Labor in office removed an exemption in relation to aged care in Australia — it is something that we will continue to examine when we get into government.
PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) spokeswoman Shelley Argent told the committee religious ministers and clergy should not be compelled to marry any couple, but allowing civil and military celebrants to refuse same-sex couples would be discriminatory.
She said no other minority groups would face similar discrimination and access to celebrants and wedding service providers in some parts of the country could already be limited.
“We strongly object to legislation permitting civil celebrants, military chaplains or any government employee having the right to refuse their services to same sex-attracted couples,” Ms Argent said.
“Additionally, we do not support businesspeople who charge for wedding services being legally permitted to refuse service to our same sex-attracted sons and daughters because of the couples’ sexual orientation.”
Exemptions from same-sex marriage laws would also continue existing LGBTI-discrimination, lead to “religious privilege” and be insulting, humiliating and degrading to couples and their families preparing for marriages.
In a statement issued last year, she reiterates,
However, we do not believe florists, bakers, or any other businesses should have the right to refuse service to LGBTI couples or any others (sic) minority.
In other words, it seems Shelley is completely fine with destroying the livelihoods of thousands of Christians involved in the wedding industry.
Thirty LGBT, human rights and legal lobbies said they wanted no exemptions, or draconian restrictions on exemptions, for churches, schools, community groups, let alone businesses. They said this in their submissions to the 2012 Federal inquiry into consolidation of anti-discrimination laws.
If this was their intention in anti-discrimination law, then what protection from prosecution would there for businesses, community groups and churches in a law allowing same-sex marriage?
[Legal Aid NSW] does not support the retention of any exemption on religious grounds.
The Consolidated Law should include no exemptions for religious organisations in relation to the protected attributes of sexual orientation and gender identity.
We recommend that the religious exceptions be repealed.
[Legal Aid Queensland] argues for the removal of those (i.e., religious) exemptions.
Religious exemptions should only apply to the core functions and beliefs of religious institutions...
[ANU College of Law] rejects permanent exemptions on religions grounds for institutions or individuals.
These exemptions are manifestly inappropriate and inconsistent with Australia’s human rights obligations and international best-practice.
Any religious exemption should be strictly restricted to the inherent requirements of the religious belief or activities rather than apply more broadly to employment-related conduct.
religious exceptions … should be precise, public, and subject to sunset provisions...
If exemptions are retained, then they should not ... be available where functions are being carried out by an organisation pursuant to a Commonwealth government contract or for activities conducted using public funds.
There should be no religious exemptions where: (a) The institution is carrying out functions contracted by government in relation to the employment; or where (b) The institution is accessing public funds to fund the employment.
Remove entirely any religious exemption to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
There should be no permanent exemptions for religious organisations in respect of any protected attributes.” However, if there are exemptions, they should be limited to “the ordination, appointment, training or education of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious orders” and to institutions involved in the “employment of staff in the provision of religious education and training.
The consolidation bill should not provide for religious exemptions in relation to the protected attributes of sexual orientation or gender identity.” However, if there are exemptions, they “should not be applicable to organisations or services in receipt of public funding.
...religious institutions would be required to ‘opt-in’ for exemption under federal anti-discrimination laws.
There should exist no blanket exceptions or exemptions for religious bodies.
Religious bodies should not be granted exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation for their activities in the provision of services, such as aged care, health services and education.
… does not support general exemptions for religious bodies for any acts and practices”. Lesbian and Gay Solidarity (Melbourne) says that the federal government must “withdraw its religious exemptions from all its anti-discrimination laws.
…exceptions for religious organisation… should not be included in the consolidated Act.
[AFAO] says there should “be no religious exemptions in the new consolidated anti-discrimination law.
It looked favourably on exemptions, but argued that “it is essential that any remaining stand-alone exceptions are reviewed regularly and rigorously to determine whether they should be retained, amended or repealed...
[The Coalition of Activist Lesbians Australia] recommended “the complete removal of exemptions for religious organisations with regards to sexual orientation.
[Tasmanian Gay & Lesbian Rights Group] said that it “does not support any legislative exemptions or exceptions that are specific to sexual orientation of gender identity and presentation”
[VCCL] said that religious bodies and educational institutions should be required to have a “licence to discriminate, time-limited but renewable, conditional on … specific ‘doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings’ (that) necessitate it.
[ERT] said that Australia’s new consolidated act “should expressly recognise that direct discrimination may be permitted only very exceptionally, and only when it can be justified against strictly defined criteria.
[VGLRL] said that it “opposes any exemption granted to religious bodies that would permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Legislation should remove automatic exceptions for religious and other bodies from all anti-discrimination legislation, and that if any exceptions are made that they be limited to a two-year period, with no automatic extension of exemptions.
Excluding special measures, there should be no religious exemptions or exceptions to Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws.
The Consolidated Act should not include religious exceptions that apply to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.... If the Act does include religious exceptions, they should apply only to the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order.
That no exemptions to the consolidated anti-discrimination legislation are available for any organisation receiving government funding when performing those government functions. That if exemptions do exist they should be narrow, temporary and made public by organisations utilising them, including when advertising for jobs or the provision of services.
A prominent LGBT activist who has donated more than anyone else to LGBT causes has said that “wicked” people who advocate for laws protecting the religious freedom of conservative Christians to act in accordance with their views on marriage and sexuality need to be “punished.”
The Rolling Stone recently published a lengthy profile piece examining the contributions of Tim Gill, a software entrepreneur who has quietly been at the forefront of the push for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights in the United States over the past several decades.
“We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” the Rolling Stone article quoted Gill as saying. “We’re going to punish the wicked.”
Gay father Barrie Drewitt-Barlow declared: ‘I want to go into my church and marry my husband.’ He added: ‘The only way forward for us now is to make a challenge in the courts against the Church.’
He said it was a shame that he and his partner were being forced to take Christians to court to get them to recognise them, but he said the new law did not give them what they have been campaigning for.
The UK law states that it is illegal for the Church of England to marry same-sex couples. However, a succession of past court cases have resulted in defeats for Christians who were in disputes over equality laws, and in particular courts have always found in favour of gays who have challenged Christians.
Colin Hart, of the Coalition for Marriage (UK) said: ‘The ink’s not even dry on the Bill and churches are already facing litigation. We warned Mr Cameron this would happen, we told him he was making promises that he couldn’t possibly keep.
‘He didn’t listen. He didn’t care. He’s the one who has created this mess. Mr Cameron’s chickens are coming home to roost and it will be ordinary people with a religious belief who yet again fall victim to the totalitarian forces of political correctness.’
People who blandly assert that freedom of religion is adequately protected in Australia are either ignorant or being misleading.