28 Nov Conservatives target parental rights in SSM bill
Andrew Tillett — Australian Financial Review — 28 November, 2017
Government conservatives have backed down on allowing commercial service providers such as bakers and florists to refuse to serve gay weddings, paring back their demands to a core of protections for faith-based charities, new shield laws preventing public bodies taking action against same-sex opponents and enshrining parental rights.
Liberal senators David Fawcett, James Paterson and Zed Seselja are coordinating efforts among government ministers and backbenchers to prepare five amendments to their colleague Dean Smith’s bill.
But their rearguard effort is likely to fall short, with no groundswell of support among Coalition MPs, while up to seven anti-gay marriage Labor senators they hope will join them may wait for a more substantial debate on religious freedoms next year.
The looming legislative battle has become increasingly personal, after pro-gay marriage Liberal, Queensland MP Warren Entsch, scolded junior conservative ministers Senator Seselja, Michael Sukkar and Angus Taylor, saying they should quit the frontbench if they wanted to continue publicly agitating for religious protections instead of sticking to their portfolio.
Gay marriage opponents had mooted moving up to 100 amendments to the same-sex marriage legislation, while Senator Paterson – who voted Yes – proposed a bill of his own with substantial religious freedoms.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the leader of conservative wing, has suggested religious freedom be dealt with in a separate bill next year, and Malcolm Turnbull has appointed former attorney-general Philip Ruddock to examine that issue.
But senators Fawcett and Paterson fear religious protections will be put into the too-hard basket if it is not dealt with now, while gay activists will test the law if religious freedoms are not legislated in tandem with gay marriage.
Their changes would not licence opponents of same-sex marriage to discriminate against gay couples beyond what is now allowed under Commonwealth law. That would prevent wedding providers from refusing to sell goods or services to gay couples.
Citing examples from overseas, they also fear organisations could be stripped of charitable status and lose tax breaks if they adhere to a traditional view of marriage.
To avoid this, they want changes to charities laws to ensure faith-based charities remain under the umbrella of anti-discrimination law exemptions enjoyed by religious organisations.
Another key change is the creation of and anti-detriment shield law which would protect individuals and organisations with a genuine belief in same-sex marriage from suffering unfavourable treatment by public authorities because they hold that conviction, provided they themselves are not discriminating.
That would mean a government agency or even a body like a university could not threaten someone with dismissal or expulsion for their view, as long as they were not threatening or harassing a person.
They are also digging in on allowing parents to withdraw their children from sex education classes on gender identity if it clashes with their religious belief.
“None of this are the actions of some horrible bigoted view,” Senator Fawcett said.
“These amendments are just protecting people who want to have that view [of traditional marriage], protect them from detriment, and if we can convince enough of our colleagues across party lines, I’m hoping of getting them up.”
A small number of Labor senators met on Monday morning to deliberate whether they’d support the immediate push for religious protections but are waiting for Liberals to clarify exactly what they want. There is a view growing in Labor ranks that the Ruddock inquiry is the circuit breaker to delay the broader issue until next year so same-sex marriage can be legal by Christmas.
While Liberals are now walking away from protecting commercial wedding providers, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has flagged amendments that would allow businesses to refuse to service gay weddings.
There are now several competing amendments around civil celebrants. Under Senator Smith’s bill existing civil celebrants would be able to register to refuse to performing same sex weddings if it clashes with their religious beliefs but the Fawcett/Paterson amendments would extend this to future celebrants.
Attorney-General George Brandis has already flagged amendments to allow civil celebrants to refuse to officiate gay weddings on conscientious grounds, while One Nation tabled its own version of of amendments.
Debate in the Senate continued on the same-sex marriage. Prominent No campaigner Eric Abetz continued to rail against the change, saying Senator Smith’s bill went further than the proposition the Australian people voted for and “adopts the ideology of gender fluidity”.
This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review.