Australian PM backs ‘religious freedom’ exemptions in same-sex marriage bill

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has backed amendments to the country’s equal marriage bill that would allow people to refuse to recognise same-sex unions.

Earlier this month Australians gave their overwhelming backing to equal marriage in a public vote, by a margin of 61.6% to 38.4%.

As the vote was purely advisory in nature, legislation on the issue is up to Parliament – where lawmakers are still divided on the best way to proceed on the issue.

The country’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has struggled to get his conservative lawmakers in line on the issue, and today made another concession in a bid to quell unrest.

In a U-turn on his previous position, Mr Turnbull signalled that he will give his backing to amendments enshrining protections for people who disagree with equal marriage.

(Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

The Australian reports that when the bill goes to the House, Mr Turnbull will back an amendment that give civil celebrants the right to refuse same-sex marriage.

It states: “Nothing in this Act limits or derogates from the right of any person, in a lawful manner, to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

He will also back an amendment tabled by Attorney General George Brandis to protect charities with anti-LGBT views.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister told the newspaper: “The Prime Minister supports protections for religious freedom, including safeguards for the legal status of charities, as well as provisions that would ensure that marriage celebrants are able to decline to solemnise marriages which they do not wish to solemnise.

“Depending on the form in which amendment proposals are presented to the house, it is likely that the Prime Minister will support measures that seek to provide greater protections in the legislation, where the legalisation of same-sex marriage necessitates immediate action on those protections.

“The reason amendments were unsuccessful in the Senate is because Labor refused to allow its senators a free vote on those amendments.”

The amendments, which were previously rejected by the Senate, are still likely to be voted down in the House if they are opposed by the opposition Labor Party and some pro-LGBT members of Turnbull’s coalition.

The bill’s architect, Senator Dean Smith, insists that the existing protections for religious people in Australia law are sufficient.

He said:  “The lack of substantive amendments indicates we got the balance correct. The bill expresses a faith in the current architecture of Australia’s religious protections. The architecture is precise.”

But Turnbull has also ordered a broad ‘religious freedom’ review.

In a bid to forge a consensus last week, Turnbull announced a ‘religious freedom’ review that will take place separately from the marriage debate.

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The review will be headed by former Liberal frontbencher Philip Ruddock, a strong opponent of LGBT rights who was key to a 2004 push to ban same-sex unions and outlaw adoption by same-sex couples.

The former Attorney General spent much of his time in office battling to undermine LGBT rights, heading to court to deny a veteran’s pension to a gay soldier’s partner.

In 2006 he also sought to block a gay Australian man from marrying in the Netherlands, refusing to grant a ‘Certificate of No Impediment to Marriage’.

Ruddock’s appointment is a major concession to anti-LGBT conservatives, and equality activists fear that the review will be used to undermine LGBT rights protections by introducing a religious ‘license to discriminate’ against gay couples.

Turnbull said: “The impending legalisation of same-sex marriage has seen a variety of proposals for legislative reform to protect freedom of religion. Many of these proposals go beyond the immediate issue of marriage.

“Any reforms to protect religious freedom at large should be undertaken carefully. There is a high risk of unintended consequences when Parliament attempts to legislate protections for basic rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion.

“The Government is particularly concerned to prevent uncertainties caused by generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations.

“This will be a timely expert stocktake to inform consideration of any necessary legislative reforms.”

(Photo by NYEIN CHAN NAING/AFP/Getty Images)

He added: “The Hon Philip Ruddock is the right person to conduct this review. Mr Ruddock has most recently served as Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights.

“In his many years in public life he has maintained a steadfast commitment to cultural and religious diversity in this country.”

Equality advocates have called for the LGBT community to be represented on a review of religious freedom because the issue disproportionately affects LGBT people.

The review will report back in March 2018, while equal marriage is expected to pass through Parliament before the end of 2017.

Just.equal spokesperson, Rodney Croome said: “Religious freedom is too often used as an excuse for discriminating against LGBTI people, so it’s vital our community is represented on the religious freedom review.

“The panel members who were announced today include human rights experts, but they are not necessarily familiar with the concerns of LGBTI Australians when it comes to how ‘religious freedom’ is used to undermine our equal rights and dignity.

“The context of this review is the myth that marriage equality is at odds with religious freedom, and the subsequent push to roll back laws protecting LGBTI people from discrimination, so it’s vital there is an LGBTI panel member to ensure our community’s concerns are heeded.

“Genuine religious freedom must be respected and protected but it must never become a weapon to be wielded against vulnerable minorities.”

LGBT activists previously sent a letter to Parliamentarians warning against creating ‘freedom to discriminate’.

The letter is below:

We believe an amendment to the Marriage Act to allow lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTIQ+) couples to marry should be as simple and straightforward as possible. It should not include provisions that allow these couples to be refused service, over and above provisions currently in Marriage Act.

We note that in comparable jurisdictions, including Britain, Ireland, Canada, USA, and New Zealand, marriage equality was achieved without additional provisions allowing further discrimination against LGBTIQ+ couples.

We believe:
– allowing LGBTIQ+ couples to marry requires nothing more than changing a few words in the legal definition of marriage and the removal of the ban on recognising overseas same-sex marriages
– a number of bills have already set this standard, including bills previously introduced by Labor MP, Stephen Jones, and a cross-party bill from Liberal MP, Warren Entsch.
– the existing provision allowing Ministers of Religion to refuse their services on the basis of tenets of their religion have been sufficient since at least 1961 to protect religious values, and will continue to be sufficient

We understand a range of extra, discriminatory provisions have been proposed including:
– provisions allowing refusal of service to by civil celebrants, commercial businesses, charities, professionals or government employees, on the basis of religious belief or personal conscience
– provisions that allow for married LGBTIQ+ partners to be discriminated against in employment or housing, that curtail school diversity programs, that allow discrimination in fertility services, or that weaken protections against hate speech

We are concerned that these extra, discriminatory provisions:
– violate the principles of equality before the law, non-discrimination, separation of church and state, and fairness and dignity for all
– send the damaging and false message that LGBTIQ+ people and our relationships pose a unique threat from which religious values and the institution of marriage need special protection
– set a dangerous precedent for allowing further discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people under the guise of “religious freedom”, as is occurring in the United States
– have not been put directly to the LGBTIQ and allied communities for consultation

We ask that:
– no extra provisions allowing discrimination or refusal of service be included in the Marriage Act or consequential amendments, including the extra provisions allowing discrimination in Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017
– the LGBTIQ+ and allied communities be consulted about any Bill before it is put to Parliament.

Yours Sincerely,
Peter Furness, former Australian Marriage Equality national director
Rodney Croome AM, former Australian Marriage Equality national director and just.equal spokesperson
Shelley Argent OAM, national spokesperson for Parents and friends of Lesbians and Gays
Ivan Hinton-Teoh, founder and national spokesperson for just.equal
Jason Tuazon-McCheyne, convener of the Equality Project
Sharyn Faulkner, spokesperson for Geelong for Marriage Equality
Felicity Marlowe, advocate for rainbow families
Brian Greig OAM, former Democrats Senator for WA
Jac Tomlins, veteran LGBTI Activist
Troy Simpson, author

Related: Australian Prime Minister ‘blames Muslims’ for voting against equal marriage