Vote ‘Yes’ for Religious Freedom

As the slogan says, it’s okay to vote ‘No’. The people thinking of voting ‘No’ in the postal poll on the potential change to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry are not homophobic. Most of those who are considering voting ‘No’ love their LGBTIQ friends and family members, and respect their relationships. But they have concerns about recognising those relationships as marriages.

I’d like to speak to one group of potential ‘No’ voters; those who are concerned about religious freedom.

One concern often raised is that if same-sex marriages become law, religious marriage celebrants will be forced to marry same-sex couples against their will. After all, when ministers of religion marry couples we are acting as agents of the State. We are only allowed to celebrate marriages if we obey the rules set down in the Marriage Act (Cth) 1961.

Let me reassure those who are concerned: as a minister of religion who is registered as a religious celebrant in Victoria, I currently cannot be forced to celebrate the marriages of anyone. Section 47(a) of the Marriage Act says very clearly that ‘Nothing in this Part imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnize any marriage’. Section 47 (b) (ii) says that authorised celebrants may impose additional requirements to those provided by this Act on the couple.

So, when a Presbyterian minister recently refused to marry a heterosexual couple because the bride-to-be had put a post supporting marriage equality on her Facebook page he was absolutely within his rights under section 47. He did so because he said that if he went ahead and married the couple after the bride’s social media post people might think that either he agreed with her or that he didn’t care about the issue. He imposed an additional requirement on this couple who approached him for marriage, that they did not publicly disagree with the position of the Presbyterian Church on the question of same-sex marriage. And he had every right to do so.

The Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill goes further than the current law to protect the religious freedom of marriage celebrants. As well as religious celebrants who are ministers of religion in established denominations, a proposed new section 47A gives marriage celebrants who are not ministers of religion the right to refuse to solemnize the marriages of same-sex couples if their ‘conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow’ them to do so.

We don’t know what Bill will be brought before the Parliament if the ‘Yes’ vote succeeds. But I believe it is extremely unlikely that the government will ever force religious celebrants to preside at particular weddings. Unlike England and many European countries, Australia does not have an established church. Australians have never been assumed to belong to a religion simply because they are Australian, and so churches have never been required to baptise, marry and bury Australians simply because they are Australian. Countries that have or have had state churches are in a very different situation from Australia, in which section 116 of the Constitution specifically prevents the Commonwealth from making laws ‘for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’.

If I am wrong, and religious celebrants are forced by the state to marry any couples, I will be on the barricades and will happily join those celebrants in prison.

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But the question of religious freedom has another side. At the moment the Uniting Church in Australia is nearing the end of a six-year process of exploring whether the Church’s understanding of marriage can be expanded to include same-sex couples. As we are the Uniting Church, of course this decision will be made by committee. The Church’s Doctrine Working Group is currently finalising a report on the issue, which will be sent to the Assembly Standing Committee. (The Assembly is the national body that has determining responsibility for the Uniting Church’s doctrine.) The Assembly Standing Committee will then decide what to do with the report, and what proposals to bring to the national Assembly in Melbourne in July 2018. It is that Assembly that will finally answer the question.

No one yet knows what is in the Doctrine Working Group’s report; what proposals the Assembly Standing Committee will bring from it to the Assembly; and what the Assembly will decide. We are a very long way from Uniting Church ministers being able to celebrate same-sex marriages. But if that is what the 2018 Assembly does decide, then unless the law changes Uniting Church ministers will still not be legally allowed to marry same-sex couples. Even if the Uniting Church agrees that its understanding of marriage can include same-sex couples, its ministers only have permission to marry couples under the Marriage Act.  Because the Marriage Act does not currently recognise same-sex marriages, Uniting Church ministers will not have the freedom of religion to marry same-sex couples.

The idea of the Uniting Church approving same-sex marriage may sound far-fetched, but this is a Church that allows people in same-sex relationships to be ordained ministers, and that allows ministers to bless same-sex relationships. Many Uniting Church ministers want to marry same-sex couples. It is not impossible that the Church will give them permission.

So, if your concern in the current debate is religious freedom, please vote ‘Yes’. Those ministers of religion who do not want to marry same-sex couples will not be forced to. Those ministers of religion who do want to marry same-sex couples will be legally allowed to.

Religious freedom is an important right. But it one that is challenged more by the current Marriage Act than by the proposed changes.

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