Malcolm Turnbull can’t ignore Coalition supporters who voted no

Malcolm Turnbull can’t ignore Coalition supporters who voted no

Greg Sheridan — The Australian — 16 November 2017


The resounding Yes vote for same- sex marriage completely vindicates the Abbott and Turnbull governments’ decision to put the matter to a popular vote. There was no homophobic hatred from the official No campaign and no anti-Christian hatred from the official Yes campaign. There was some disgusting stuff on the ­fringes from both sides.

But the nation now has serious business to attend to. First, we must all share the sky together. This is a common nation and we all need to live civilly with each other. The plebiscite establishes that the social consensus for legal marriage to be exclusively between a man and a woman has gone, just as the earlier consensus for legal marriage to be lifelong has gone.

This does not require Christian churches to change their doctrines. Religious teachings on basic issues are either true or false. The essence of the teaching cannot change because social opinion changes.

However, Christians need consciously to live as creative, bold minorities within a secular society, respecting its legal secularism but vigorously asserting all the rights of a substantial minority. After all, 39 per cent of people voted No. A lot of Christians, of course, voted Yes. But opinion polls show most also favour vigorous protections for religious freedom.

When Christians demand minority rights, they do so on two grounds. First, that their religious conviction is central to their persons and they cannot be asked to violate that. And second, from the Christian point of view, they are asking for minority rights for the truth.

In this sense, their assertion of minority rights is an assertion on behalf of all of society that it not be deprived of the truth, even as they recognise that there is no legal coercion in many aspects of the truth.

These are difficult matters. Senator James Paterson’s proposed bill to legalise same-sex marriage offered the most comprehensive defence of religious freedom. Paterson is religiously an agnostic, voted Yes and has long advocated a Yes vote. He is intellectually substantial and a big part of the Liberals’ future.

The most controversial aspect of his bill was the most difficult and least important. He proposed an exemption for anyone who conscientiously objected to gay marriage from having to sell services specifically for a gay wedding. In reality, this would have resulted in almost no discrimination because most merchants want people’s business and are not worried about a person’s private life.

The issue Paterson raises here is not trivial but it is too difficult to legislate. A cake-maker may be happy to sell a cake to anybody but reluctant to use his skill to offer a pro-gay marriage message on the cake. Should the law compel him to? An analogous case may be a gay marriage campaigner florist who is asked to create a floral exhibition that says “Marriage is only between a man and a woman”, and responds, “Why not try the florist next door?”

However, conscientious Christians are open to a serious charge of double standards in that there is no record of them in recent years refusing to provide services for two divorced people marrying, or the celebrations of a de facto couple. Christian morality cannot impose a higher standard on gay people than on straight people, and it cannot expect the law to enforce or even enable this higher standard.

The No case was misguided to emphasise the baker, the florist, the candlestick maker. As John Howard said, it would be idiotic for the debate to get hung up on this.

Much of the real threat to religious freedom arising from the Yes vote will come from the interaction of federal and state law and the illiberal and coercive proclivities of ideological enforcement bodies such as human rights commissions, anti-discrimination com­missions and education departments. It is dishonest of federal ministers to claim they have no responsibility for this.

Three reforms suggest themselves. All religious organisations, including schools, seminaries, parishes, private associations and the like, should be free to proclaim their traditional teachings on marriage and gender relations. Famously, the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart was charged before Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commission because he circulated a pamphlet that supported the traditional view of marriage.

The charge was withdrawn before it was determined. Therefore, as Paterson has noted, we do not know whether it is still legal in Tasmania to teach the traditional Christian view of marriage. This kind of anti-discrimination case will be infinitely likelier once same-sex marriage is legalised.

Second, Christian and other charities, adoption agencies and the like — which, as a result of the character of the religious convictions that have led them to contribute magnificent charitable work to society, hold the traditional view of marriage — should not suffer loss of funding or authorisation because of the change of law.

Third, the excessive, highly tendentious, at times toxic gender fluidity stuff taught in programs such as Safe Schools should at the very least be optional so that parents have an automatic right to opt out of such programs.

It ought also to be the case that no membership of any professional accrediting association should be withdrawn because of a person’s opinion on same-sex marriage. This is an important factor when illiberal ideological coerciveness is on the march. This is the real defence of civil liberties.

The Liberal and Nationals parties are perfectly placed to handle these issues. The polls that showed support for same-sex marriage also showed strong support for religious freedom.

Malcolm Turnbull said he was even more strongly committed to religious freedom than to same-sex marriage. If he does not lift a finger to extend religious freedom protections beyond the Dean Smith bill’s minimalism, this will be seen as a statement in bad faith.

One of the profound benefits of this plebiscite has been the debate it has produced on religious freedom.

Two final related thoughts: Australia is very fortunate that Tony Abbott insisted on a plebiscite. That similar social changes in the US were brought about undemocratically by courts contributed to their bitter unacceptance by a substantial minority and the pervasive rancour that now besets American politics. Undemocratic rule by courts contributed directly to the rise of Donald Trump.

The related observation is that it seems a majority of Coalition voters voted No. Turnbull would be gravely mistaken to think he can ignore them and win an election. The politically winning combination, as well as the ethically right combination, is to legislate for same-sex marriage and simultaneously increase the safeguards of religious freedom substantially.

This article was originally published in The Australian.

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