I was one of the 110 Christian signatories to this letter asking the Prime Minister to allow a conscience vote on marriage equality. Sadly, the day before this letter was delivered, at a Prayer Breakfast at Parliament House, a six-hour joint LNP party room meeting decided not to allow members of the LNP a conscience vote. But the letter is still important because the issue will not go away, and because it shows that Christians are not all of one mind on the question.
The Hon Tony Abbott MP
Canberra ACT 2600
Cc: Liberal National Party Caucus
Dear Prime Minister
Christian Support for Same-Sex Marriage
We write as people of faith and as a voice for many others of religious faith. We are leaders and prominent members of Christian communities across diverse fields of endeavour. We respect that ours is a democratic, multicultural and secular nation. We equally affirm that Parliament should be open to hear religious voices among the many Australian voices that advocate on important social issues.
The Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) (“the Act”) currently defines marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union (the “existing arrangements”). Christian lobbies and leaders have been prominent in arguing that the existing arrangements should remain in place. We are concerned that these lobbies and leaders do not speak for all Christians. In fact the evidence from polling shows that a majority of those who identify as Christian support legalising same-sex marriage.
We believe that a Bill to amend the Act to allow for same-sex marriage should be tabled in the Parliament this year, that a free vote on the Bill be allowed in the Coalition, and that such a Bill contain provisions to enable all religious bodies to observe their values with respect to marriage rites.
Freedom of and from Religion
The existing arrangements are staunchly defended by certain Christian groups, in part on the grounds of religious liberty. Such liberty is of course deeply consequential for people of faith. Yet we should not overlook the fact that people with no religious affiliation also hold values in good conscience. As religious people we recognise that many of those people who have no religious affiliation, including younger Australians who are the most likely to marry, find that the existing arrangements frequently conflict with their values of respect, equality and freedom.
Peter and Jessica are not regular church-goers but because of a long-standing personal friendship they asked Rev Mike^ to officiate at their wedding in Mike’s capacity as a religious celebrant. Prior to the ceremony Peter and Jessica met with Rev Mike and raised their dismay over the requirement under the Act to declare that marriage is ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others’ (or words to that effect). For them such words conveyed a demeaning and discriminatory message, in particular for their close gay friends who would be attending. Under the existing arrangements however, Pete and Jessica realized that irrespective of whether they had chosen a civil or a religious ceremony, the Act required them to go against their conscience.
^ Mike, Jessica and Peter’s names have been anonymized.
We accept that the institution of marriage carries particular religious meaning for many. Nevertheless, Christian leaders who are concerned over freedom of religion need also to allow for freedom from religion.
It is certainly vital that religious groups retain the right to celebrate marriage in accordance with their doctrines and traditions. This need not conflict with the right of the majority of Australians to have their consciences recognised in relation to marriage. The simplest solution is for a Bill to be tabled that expressly provides for religious freedom. This would provide assurances for those concerned over religious liberty and respect the choice, made by some two in three Australians, to have their wedding officiated by a civil celebrant.
The claim to religious freedom raises another matter of principle. As polls demonstrate, many religious people have come to a different view about the nature of marriage from that defined in the Act. Under the existing arrangements religious freedom may be denied where faith communities wish to have same-sex relationships recognised. Rev Lisa’s^ situation highlights how religious freedom should be open to all faith communities.
Several members of Rev Lisa’s congregation are in same-sex relationships. Under the Act they cannot have their relationships recognised as marriages in their church, unlike others in the congregation. One same-sex couple in the congregation includes a woman with citizenship in The Netherlands. This couple was able to marry in The Netherlands. In their own church, Rev Lisa is able to offer a public blessing on their relationship, a blessing that recognised their marriage religiously despite the fact that it could not take place or be legally recognised in Australia.
^ Rev Lisa’s name has been anonymized.
Under the Act, religious celebrants like Rev Lisa and Christians like her congregation members do not have freedom of conscience to celebrate such marriages in their own churches, even where their faith communities support such a relationship. The existing arrangements deprive people of faith and Christian institutions from recognising marriage in a manner that is consistent with their religious values.
The views of Christians in relation to marriage under the Act are more complex and varied than those represented by prominent lobbies and leaders. As people of faith we strongly disagree that the Act should be maintained in its current form. Accordingly we recommend that:
- A Bill to amend the current arrangements to allow for same-sex unions to be recognised as marriages be debated in the Parliament this year.
- The Liberal National Coalition party be given a free vote on such a Bill.
- The Bill provides for authorised religious bodies to conduct marriage ceremonies in accordance with the rites and doctrines of their institution.
The letter was signed by 110 people, including 100 clergy.
 For example, 59% of Christians in ‘Same-Sex Marriage Research 2014’ Crosby|Textor (27th June 2014). 53% of Christians in ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Religion’ Galaxy Research (August 2011).
 For example, the ‘Religion and Same-Sex Marriage’ survey by Galaxy Research (February 2012) found 81% of 18-24 year olds agreed that same-sex couples should be able to marry.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that, in 2013, 72.5 per cent of all marriage ceremonies were overseen by a civil celebrant. ABS 3310.0 – Marriages and Divorces, Australia, 2013.