The impact that redefining marriage will have on the religious freedom of every day Australians is an area of great significance to the millions of people of faith in this country.
The Government has not made it clear what protections for freedom of religion, if any, will be included in any legislation to change the Marriage Act. There has been a lot of focus on religious freedom issues as they pertain to whether a minister of religion or civil celebrant will be forced to solemnise a same-sex wedding, but no attention has been paid to what a change in law would mean for the religious freedom of every day Australians. Neither the exposure draft released by the Government last year, nor the bill proposed by Senator Dean Smith included sufficient protections for religious freedom.
Concerns about the impacts of the redefinition of marriage go far beyond the wedding ceremony, or even the freedoms of wedding service providers like florists, bakers and photographers (although their freedoms are just as important as anyone else’s.)
The impacts of a change in the marriage law are also about whether religious schools will be allowed to continue teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, whether faith-based charities will retain their tax-exempt status, or whether religious organisations will be allowed to continue to hire people who agree to publicly support their ethos.
There are also concerns about whether or not any protections introduced for religious freedom will remain in place for very long. 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.
If we look overseas to countries where marriage has been redefined, we can see a number of examples of the impact on religious freedom of individuals and institutions.
Faith-based schools that refuse to teach homosexuality and gender identity issues are being faced with closure. In the UK, Vishnitz Girls School, an orthodox Jewish school has failed two education authority inspections and now faces closure for refusing to “explicitly” teach girls between the ages of 3 and 11 years about sexual orientation and gender re-assignment. The education authority, Ofsted, stated in its latest report that without explicit education about sexual orientation and gender re-assignment, these primary school aged girls “are not able to gain a full understanding of fundamental British values.”
In Canada, the Law Society of Upper Canada refuses to accredit the law degrees of graduates from Christian college, Trinity Western University. Their objection does not relate to the quality of the education or the qualifications of the graduates, but rather because the students sign a personal agreement to reserve their own sexual activity for heterosexual marriage.
Anti-discrimination laws are used to cripple the businesses of people with a religious objection to same-sex marriage, such that their only option is to comply or close. In Oregon, cake shop owners Aaron and Melissa Klein were ordered to pay US$135,000 for their refusal to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding. They eventually had to shut down their business. And wedding service providers that had once been in the news for declining services for a same-sex wedding have found themselves retargeted.
But the penalties are not simply financial. Jack Philips was required to provide “comprehensive staff training,” alter company policies and file quarterly compliance reports after declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
There are also moves to directly impact the way that ministers of religion engage in their work.
The Senate Select Committee was told that largest-ever survey of LGBTI Australians showed that 59 per cent of respondents didn’t want any protections for ministers of religion who did not want to participate in same-sex weddings, and overseas, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said his party was working towards compelling priests to perform same-sex weddings.
There are also concerns about what faith leaders will be able to teach to their own congregations.
In June 2015, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a pastoral letter titled: Don’t Mess with Marriage. The booklet was distributed in parishes and to parents whose children attend Catholic schools. Australian Marriage Equality issued a media release in which its national director at the time, Rodney Croome, urged complaints to be made to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission.
Transgender activist and Greens candidate Martine Delaney made a complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Commission, arguing that religious freedom is not absolute in a secular society. Ms Delaney sought a public apology from the Australian Catholic Bishops and a re-education program implemented for staff and students at Catholic schools. Then- Commissioner Robin Banks agreed that there was a case to answer. The complaint was eventually withdrawn, but the law still remains.
The concerns about the freedom of religion extend far beyond whether an individual minister of religion or celebrant is required to solemnise a same-sex wedding. It has to do with what faith leaders will be able to preach, what schools and parents will be able to teach, and how every day Australians will be able to conduct their businesses in accordance with their beliefs.