Flat White

Dangerous days for liberty

18 September 2017

7:47 AM

18 September 2017

7:47 AM

If the most vocal advocates of same-sex marriage believe their own rhetoric then they cannot in good conscience defend the freedom of conscience, speech, and association of dissenters from same-sex marriage.

Instructive was the lacklustre private member’s bill from West Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith meant to guarantee religious freedom. That bill guaranteed only that ministers of religion and civil celebrants could decline participation in same-sex marriage ceremonies, and that religious institutions would not have to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Same-sex marriage advocate Rodney Croome thought the protections in Smith’s bill were “more than enough”. Croome was the one who urged people to complain to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner in 2015 about Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous’ pamphlet defending traditional marriage. The pamphlet is a gracious and sophisticated defence of historic Catholic teaching. That Porteous had to answer before the Anti-Discrimination Commission for it speaks volumes about many LGBTQ lobbyists’ attitudes towards liberal freedoms.

Back to Senator Smith’s bill, it offered no protection for photographers, caterers, venue owners, or cake-makers who could not in good conscience offer services to same-sex weddings. Nor did the bill guarantee that religious schools could continue to teach the traditional understanding of marriage to their pupils.

Why wouldn’t Smith’s bill offer more robust protection for religious freedom in light of the highly publicized Porteous case and other similar cases in Australia and overseas? The answer is that vociferous defenders of same-sex marriage actually don’t want robust freedom of conscience, speech, and association laws at all. And if we listen to them carefully we’ll see that they’ve been hinting that from the beginning.

Defenders of same-sex marriage frequently conceptualise the issue in terms of civil rights, implying an analogy between defenders of traditional marriage and the Jim Crow laws upholding racial segregation in the US up to the mid-1960s. Last week’s petition of the Australian Medical Association against members who are opposed to same-sex marriage is typical. It claims, “To speak out against one sector of the community for wanting access to what everyone else can claim freely is discrimination in line with that historically practised (sic) against non-white ­people throughout the Western world….”

In the same spirit many of the most vocal advocates of same-sex marriage from the LGBTQ community, as well as their straight supporters in the media and politics, have been demonizing opponents as haters, extremists, and bigots. Last weekend the Labor MP for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, encouraged same-sex marriage supporters to “drown out the hate with love” at a rally.

In other words, defenders of traditional marriage are alleged to be the new segregationists; they are the moral equivalent of racists.

But the difference between the gender complementary view of marriage and racial segregation in all its forms is that, unlike racial segregationism, the gender-complementary view of marriage is a reasonable view to hold. It is reasonable to believe that the state is only interested in marriage if marriage is an institution whose purpose involves the creating and raising of children – future citizens. It is reasonable to be concerned with a law that basically declares it a matter of indifference whether or not a child has a mother and a father. It is reasonable to be concerned about the likely cultural and legal consequences of same-sex marriage when a programme like Safe Schools is lurking in the background.

Yet remember that one can admit that these are reasonable objections to same-sex marriage and still think that there is an opposite view that is equally or more reasonable. Often complex social debates are complex because there is a plurality of reasonable but incompatible views.

And yet, despite the above arguments being set forth by believers in traditional marriage, many advocates of same-sex marriage in the media and politics have dismissed them all as haters, bigots, and akin to racists. This view explains the ABC’s willingness to publicise Tim Minchin’s song calling traditionalists “bigoted c–ts” while practically ignoring the bombing of the Australian Christian Lobby’s headquarters by a gay activist. It also explains how Channel 10 could happily doctor images of posters saying “Stop the Fags” and falsely claim that they were plastered all over Melbourne. Most recently journalist and author Benjamin Law publicly fantasised about “hate f–king” “homophobic” MPs.

What kind of culture must exist among the ‘Yes’ camp for such deeds to be done and such words to be so proudly uttered? Simple. The kind of culture that instils in its rank and file a belief that they are crusading against a hatred and bigotry akin to the spirit of Jim Crow.

And this is why there is no reason to believe that the same people who lobby for same-sex marriage today will not also lobby against liberal freedoms if same-sex marriage is successful.

The same-sex marriage movement has up until now traded heavily on two claims about its opponents: they are bigots, akin to racists, and their perspective is detrimental to the health of members of the LGBTQ community. This all begs a question. Why would advocates of same-sex marriage affirm the freedoms of speech, conscience, and association for their dissenting fellow citizens if they sincerely believe that their dissent is harmful and morally equivalent to the most despicable racism practised in the past?

As Senator Smith’s bill indicates, they will not be so willing.

In Australia, over the past few years the distinction between speech and actions merely offend and speech and actions that abuse, oppress, or discriminate has been blurred. In the world of identity politics, all feelings of offence are proof of oppression. In this world, offensiveness becomes the modern equivalent of witchcraft – a scourge on society that must be punished and eradicated. Hence the puritanical pursuit of people like Bishop Porteous in Tasmania, The Australian’s Bill Leak, as well as others – students, teachers, and public servants – who are now being represented by the Human Rights Law Alliance.

Same-sex marriage advocates cannot at the same time say that their opponents are bigoted and dangerous and yet be happy for their freedoms of speech, conscience, and association to be strongly protected. If the conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman really is akin to racism and really is a health hazard then the Australian parliament has no business permitting such a pernicious belief to be publicly uttered and certainly has no right to allow people to act on those convictions.

The bullying of traditionalists over the past year is merely a portent of things to come, things that must come if advocates of same-sex marriage believe their own rhetoric. My experience is that they believe it with all their hearts, and this is what makes many of them dangerous to our already fragile liberal democracy.

Stephen Chavura lectures in politics and history at Macquarie University, Campion College, and the Lachlan Macquarie Institute.

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