Robust bill on freedom a marriage made in heaven

Robust bill on freedom a marriage made in heaven

Senator Paterson – The Australian – 13 November, 2017


On the question of religious freedom and same-sex marriage, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten both put it well.

On September 15, the Prime Minister said: “I just want to reassure Australians that as strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, even more strongly, if you like, do I believe in religious freedom”.

On the same day, the Opposition Leader argued that “I am a supporter of marriage equality, but I also have been raised to be a person of faith. I can give this guarantee to the Australian ­people: I and Labor will not support legislation which impinges upon religious freedom in this country”.

Assuming there is a Yes result in the postal marriage survey on Wednesday, the issue before parliament will be how to best deliver on this bipartisan promise.

Like the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, I support same-sex marriage. I was proud to vote Yes in the postal survey, and I’ve been on the public record in support of same-sex marriage since June 2011. Although I am personally agnostic, I am equally passionate about ­religious liberty and the other important freedoms we cherish as Australians, like freedom of speech and ­conscience.

I’ve never believed that legalising same-sex marriage and preserving the freedoms of all Australians are mutually exclusive. During the campaign, I argued that it was not beyond the ability of the parliament to achieve both.

To do so it must enact a bill with sufficiently robust protections for our freedoms. Today I’ve released a draft bill to deliver on these objectives.

Like other draft bills produced in recent years, it changes the Marriage Act to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. It also ensures ministers of religion and civil celebrants with a genuine belief in the traditional definition of marriage cannot be forced to solemnise a same-sex wedding.

Everyone agrees these protections are necessary because we all accept it would be wrong to compel someone to act against their conscience.

But unlike other bills, it does not end there.

Religious freedom is a universal human right. There’s no international law or legal instrument that says only ministers of religion enjoy this right, and deserve to have it protected. Religious freedom extends to the congregation too — and it doesn’t end at the church, mosque or synagogue door.

As a society, we uphold the idea of religious freedom because we believe people of faith ­deserve to be able to lead their lives according to their values. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are intimately linked. As a non-­religious person, I should have no fewer rights to live my life consistent with my beliefs than anyone else.

That’s why it is necessary to extend the same principle applied in other same-sex marriage bills beyond ministers of religion to anyone else directly connected to a wedding. If it is wrong to force a priest to participate in a same-sex ­wedding against their beliefs, it should be wrong to force a florist or a photographer too.

My draft bill provides a limited right of conscientious objection, so that no one is compelled to participate in a same-sex wedding if it is inconsistent with their sincerely held beliefs.

It also protects free speech. The aborted complaint against Archbishop Julian Porteous in Tasmania shows there is legal uncertainty about whether promoting a traditional understanding of marriage is consistent with some state laws. The bill would protect this speech — provided that it is not threatening or harassing.

It enacts a new, narrow anti-detriment clause, to ensure that people who hold a ­traditional ­belief in marriage cannot be ­adversely treated — but only by government and its agencies. For example, governments could not withdraw funding for a charity because it promotes a traditional understanding of marriage. A body that licenses occupations could not revoke the licence of a practitioner based on their views. No government could sack a public servant based on their beliefs about marriage.

But a printing company could refuse to print a book arguing against same-sex marriage, as occurred last year. As we saw during the survey period, an advertising company could decline to provide services to opponents of same-sex ­marriage, and the owner of a venue could not be forced to hold an event promoting traditional marriage.

This is an important feature of the bill. In the same way it would be wrong to force someone with a traditional belief in marriage to participate in a same-sex wedding, it is also wrong to force a supporter of same-sex marriage to be ­involved in the promotion of views with which they disagree.

Finally, the bill ensures students and their parents have a right to opt out of classes that conflict with their values. This upholds the right of parents to control the moral and religious education of their children. This bill is not an ­attempt to delay the legalisation of same-sex marriage. It could pass the parliament as quickly as any other bill that aims to do the same. If a Yes result is returned this week, the parliament must pass a bill before Christmas, with additional sitting weeks if necessary.

We’ll soon know the result. But one thing is already clear — Australians disagree on how we should define marriage. Our challenge is to find a way to coexist harmoniously and accept that we don’t all agree. Free societies can prosper with diverse points of view. A legal framework that protects everyone’s freedom gives us the best chance of doing so.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.

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