The bill unveiled yesterday by Liberal Senator James Paterson to include comprehensive religious protections in the legalisation legalising same-sex marriage – in the event of a ‘Yes’ victory in the postal plebiscite — is a welcome attempt to forestall the lawfare activism that the coming of ‘marriage equality’ will otherwise unleash.
Claims that the bill – to establish new exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation — will license so-called bigots to discriminate by allowing Christian (and other religious) businesses with sincere conscientious objections to refuse to provide wedding-related services to homosexual and lesbian couples are overstated. And the reaction to the ‘Dastyari incident’ last week suggests why.
When two members of the far-right ‘Patriot Blue’ group harassed Senator Sam Dastyari in a Melbourne pub, the response from across the political spectrum was to condemn this kind of bullying as ‘un-Australian.’
What was correctly identified as un-Australian was the way two fringe activists sought to draw attention to themselves and their political agenda by singling out Dastyari based on his religious and ethnic background.
Highlighting differences and making people feel bad about those differences is not the Australian way. The open, friendly, and accommodating ‘fair go’ Australian-style instead encourages us to overlook what divides us and focus on what we have in common and has allowed modern Australia to become one of the most diverse and yet harmonious nations in the world.
I suspect that the same set of social manners that allow us to live and let live together regardless of our differences will largely apply if same-sex marriage is legalised. Many Christian businesses – especially as same-sex weddings will be rare, statistically speaking – are likely to be as reluctant to deny service as many gay couples will be equally reluctant to force the issue.
Nevertheless, religious protections are still needed because rainbow activists do want to force the issue and single out Christian business. Any marriage equality law that does not include comprehensives protections for religious freedom will pave the way for anti-discrimination lawsuits that will single out and force Christians to act against their beliefs, as part of the broader campaign to delegitimise the place of religion in Australian life.
Bitter legal disputes over same-sex marriage would be socially divisive, and could potentially transform ‘marriage equality’ into the kind of polarising issue and touch stone for the culture wars that abortion is the United States. It would also be ironic if, in the name of ‘gay liberation’, the legalisation of same-sex marriage bullied Christians into closeting their beliefs.
The current same-sex marriage bill before parliament proposed by Western Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith limits religious protections to preventing ministers of religion and civil celebrants from being forced to wed same-sex couples.
Some of the Liberal MPs who support the Smith bill and argue that no further protections for religious freedom are required have also been among the strongest supporters of reforms to Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act to restore the right to free speech in Australia.
Scrapping 18c is definitely needed to prevent the kind of debate-killing lawfare Andrew Bolt and the late-Bill Leak have faced. However, this would mean that in order to ensure that the parliament does not violate the core liberal principle and human right to free speech, people who are abused by the worst racists in the nation would have no legal remedy available.
Yet when it comes to protection of the fundamental principle and right to religious freedom, many of the same proponents of abolishing Section 18c appear to be comfortable with a bill of weak religious protections that will inevitably lead to the legal persecution of Christians who continue to believe in the traditional definition of marriage – a definition that is millennia old and which the likes of Julia Gillard and Penny Wong supported as recently as 2011.
The parliament would, therefore, be best advised, based on principle and in the interests of social harmony, to pass the Paterson bill. This would allow all Australians, believers and non-believers alike, to learn how to live and let live with marriage equality amongst themselves, and not invite the grievance-mongering lawyers and activists in to sow the seeds of social and political division.
Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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