As Australians Vote on Same-Sex Marriage, Concerns for Religious Liberty Loom

Marriage-equality marchers in Sydney, Australia, September 10, 2017. (Reuters photo: Steven Saphore)
Some worry that legalizing same-sex marriage may be a slippery slope toward official discrimination against Christians.

Nearly 30 countries have legalized same-sex marriage since 2000, sparking concern for religious freedom. In Australia, the situation is no different in that regard. Australians are voting on whether same-sex marriage should be legal. Although the vote is not binding, some politicians have said that, when considering a bill the government is currently considering, they would take action consistent with the majority opinion of voters.

Proponents see a Yes vote as a step toward equality, while opponents see it as a threat to religious liberty. “In countries where marriage has been redefined, we have seen that this does not stop at same-sex marriage,” Monica Doumit, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Marriage, says via email. “Despite promises of LGBTIQ lobbyists, this is not about ‘living and letting live.’”

In the United States, some Christians, when asked, refused to provide services or products for same-sex weddings. Refusing to do so could result in crippling fines. Denmark went even further, requiring every church to conduct same-sex-marriage ceremonies even if they violate its core beliefs.

The Australian bill, according to Liberal-party senator Dean Smith, would create equality for same-sex couples while also protecting freedom for religious institutions. He says via email that the bill would legalize same-sex marriage across the country but would not force religious ministers ever to solemnize it if they can demonstrate that it violates their religion’s teachings. The bill creates a new legal category for “religious marriage celebrants.”

The bill also permits any institution “established for religious purpose” to refuse to provide goods or services for the solemnization of the marriage, but, as in the United States to some extent, Australia would forbid any other institutions that same liberty. So it would not apply to businesses even if they are owned by Christians. Smith says that giving that pass to businesses and non-Christian institutions “would open the door to winding back Australia’s well-established and widely respected anti-discrimination laws.”

Tiernan Brady, executive director of the Equality Campaign, which fights for the legalization of same-sex marriage, echoed the senator’s concerns. “The Equality Campaign would see any winding back of anti-discrimination laws as a backward step and to be opposed,” he says via email. The Campaign supports the bill as it is.

“Marriage Equality will take nothing from anyone,” Brady adds. “The day that marriage equality happens no one will be less married and no one will be more gay, but for the first time LGBTI people will feel truly included in the communities and country they love.”

Not everyone sees the bill in such a positive light.

A spokeswoman for the Coalition for Marriage fears that the government will take aim at Christians’ rights to free speech more broadly.

Sarah-Jane Meeson, founder of Christian Women in Business in Australia, thinks that it is hard to say what Christian-owned businesses will do if they are required to provide services for same-sex weddings. “It’s really hard for Christian organisations who love God and love people to go through something like this,” she explains. “We have our Biblical principles that state very clearly that God does not permit gay relationships or sexual actions, yet we are called to love.” She concludes that “in our minds, we vote no, but in our hearts, we will still love.”

Doumit worries that being forced to bake cakes for same-sex weddings is not the crux of the problem. She is concerned that the government will take aim at Christians’ rights to free speech more broadly.

Although religious institutions are protected in the bill, Doumit contends that the Australian government has already targeted Christians over speech. She notes that Catholic archbishop Julian Porteous was investigated for possible discrimination because at Catholic schools he handed out booklets opposing same-sex marriage. His words were too aggressive, according to the person who filed the complaint, which was dismissed only after the complainant dismissed it.

She fears that legalizing same-sex marriage may be a slippery slope toward official discrimination against Christians. “Same-sex marriage has consequences for education, with radical LGBTIQ sex and gender programs pushed into the classrooms, and parents lose their right to consent to — or even know about — what their kids are being taught,” Doumit says. “It has consequences for free speech, with those who speak up in favour of a traditional view of marriage facing professional punishment.”

More than three-fourths of eligible Australians have already voted in the plebiscite, which ends November 7.


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