Rights clash looms in same-sex debate

Rights clash looms in same-sex debate, by Paul Kelly.

While the flawed postal vote plebiscite has provoked furious rival responses, the pivotal problem is just emerging — the failure in any draft bill by Coalition or Labor MPs to fully protect religious freedoms once same-sex marriage is legislated. …

Beyond the campaign lies the great dilemma. The proposition is lethal — that it would constitute a historical betrayal of the values of the Coalition parties if they “backed” a bill post-plebiscite on same-sex marriage that exposed individuals and institutions to retaliation for their beliefs because the government failed to strengthen Australia’s woefully inadequate laws on religious freedom and protection.

Abbott said if people had fears for their freedom, their right to express the traditional view of marriage without retaliation, they should vote “no”. In tactical terms, this shifts the issue from same-sex marriage, which has majority support, to the trade-off of rights ­involved: winning same-sex marriage at the sacrifice of freedom of conscience, belief and religion. …

The further truth is the political class is split on these protections, with the prospect that passage of same-sex marriage will have a second and far more important consequence — an assault on religious freedoms made possible by inadequate laws that will see a major shift in Australian society.

Since the postal plebiscite was announced, comments by Abbott, ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja, Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies and the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, John P Wilson, signal they want to enshrine religious freedom as a core issue in the vote. …

Nobody should be surprised by these events. It highlights the essential weakness of the same-sex marriage case, a point obvious for years. Despite the insistence of politicians, religious freedom has not been properly addressed …

The Turnbull government has ignored the spirit or letter of this advice. Hastie identified this flaw when he said to this paper during the week: “Will people, churches, schools, charitable organisations and businesses be protected if they hold to the common view of marriage?” The Senate committee report shows they will not. This issue goes far beyond the ceremony itself to wider society. …

Saying the Smith bill is defective, Hastie says it “only offered protections to individuals involved in the conduct of weddings” and, as a result, “failed to grasp the far-reaching significance of redefining marriage”.

This is the core point. It is the challenge the Coalition will abandon only at the price of betraying the principles basic to its life since the inception of these parties. Will Turnbull before the next election face the prospect of believers in traditional marriage being penalised or intimidated because his government refused to provide legal protections? If so, how will conservative voters react? …

What is needed:

University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson welcomes the protections for ministers of religion and for marriage celebrants but says this is far from sufficient. “In certain sections of the community, there is now deep hatred expressed for people of faith,” he says.

“Provisions are required to protect people from discrimination on account of whatever views they may hold about marriage, whether they are opposed to same-sex marriage or in favour of it.”

He says it must be made lawful for any person or entity to express an opinion that accords with a religious or conscientious belief about marriage. He advocates laws to protect people or entities in relation to employment, contracting, academic, trade or professional qualification, accommo­dation, education and adminis­tration of commonwealth laws and programs.

Institute for Civil Society executive director Mark Sneddon summarises his views based on his submission to the Senate committee: “I am extremely concerned about the lack of legal protection across this country in terms of freedom of conscience, belief and religion for people who support traditional marriage.

“These protections are far less than those for people who support same-sex marriage. Yet it is those who support traditional marriage who are more susceptible to ­actions … from government bodies and commercial ­organisations.

“Where persons hold the traditional view of marriage not on grounds of religious belief, they have no protection under federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws or the Fair Work Act. If they hold the traditional view of marriage on the grounds of ­religious belief they have no protection under federal anti-discrimination law, no protection under NSW or South Australian anti-discrimination laws and some protection under the anti-discrimination laws of the other states or territories but only for individuals and not organisations.” …

The fault lines:

The evidence and examples rebuff the lazy response from politicians that this is not a serious issue. …

For years the typical response from politicians to the religious freedom issue has been patronising and dismissive, buttressed by the claim that religious ministers would be protected. Any notion that will suffice is ludicrous.

The resistance falls into three categories: those who care only about achieving same-sex marriage; those who think protection around the ceremony is the only issue that matters; and those, like the champions of progressive ideology, who see this social change as an integral step in driving religion from the public square.