The Parliament can deliver simple religious freedom protection for Australians who hold traditional marriage beliefs. This need not delay the introduction of same sex marriage. Australia needs leadership that delivers on promises that same sex marriage will be introduced with protection of religious freedom.
The law on marriage will soon change to allow couples to marry irrespective of gender. The Parliament has a clear mandate from the postal survey to change the Marriage Act. It should do so as soon as possible.
What happens though to those whose traditional beliefs on the nature of marriage will not change? How will the Marriage Act deal with ‘dissenters’? Will people and organisations with traditional marriage beliefs be treated unfavourably because of those beliefs? Will they be compelled or induced to compromise those beliefs?
Almost 5 million Australians voted against this change, believing that marriage is between a man a woman. Many did so for religious reasons. Many were driven by cultural or traditional understandings of marriage quite independent of religious beliefs. Whatever the reason, there will soon be a significant minority of the Australian population whose beliefs about marriage will be out of step with its legal meaning.
The issue for Parliament to resolve is much simpler than some are suggesting. It is solvable by focused protections to allow those persons and organisations to lawfully express and to lawfully act on their beliefs about the nature of marriage, subject to the Sex Discrimination Act.
The Parliament is capable of quickly resolving the scope and extent of the protections that may be given to people who continue to hold the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. What Parliament cannot and should not do is attempt to deal quickly with broader questions of religious freedom or conscience protections.
We therefore welcome the broad ranging future inquiry under Philip Ruddock. That should consider the interaction of Commonwealth and State laws, and our commitment to international human rights instruments. It should also consider the important question of how religious freedom claims sit alongside claims to other important rights, such as the right of all individuals to be treated equally before the law and to have equal and effective protection against discrimination.
But the issue before Parliament now is broader than Ruddock's remit. The protections required now are not just for religious freedom but for freedom of conscience speech and association. Further, the protections needed are not just for the religious but for any who hold to traditional views of marrriage for non-religious reasons. The Ruddock inquiry therefore won’t consider and cannot solve these ‘non-religious freedom’ issues.
The Parliament must therefore urgently focus on a narrower problem - how to protect those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman from suffering discrimination because of that belief. This does not need months of inquiry into broad ranging religious freedom protections to solve. It can and should be solved now in this Bill.
We commend the efforts of many on both sides of this debate to find common ground. A change in the law to permit couples to marry regardless of their gender seemed unlikely a decade ago and had little political and cultural support. Soon it will be law. The speed and scale of this change has taken many by surprise. A significant minority will not change their views on marriage. The Parliament should act to protect them from suffering discrimination because of this belief. If the Parliament does not act clearly the outcome will be years of litigation and political struggles at state and federal levels. We can do better than that.
Freedom for Faith is a Christian think tank that exists to see religious freedom protected and promoted for all Australians.
Contact: Michael Kellahan, Executive Director at Freedom for Faith at firstname.lastname@example.org