First government marriage equality bill released with discriminatory exemptions

Overnight the Government released the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, which proposes marriage equality but contains concerning exemptions that would allow discrimination against same-sex couples. The bill is intended to form the basis for consultation should the proposed plebiscite bill pass both houses of parliament. This looks unlikely following the Australian Labor Party announcement that the party will oppose in the Senate.

Anna Brown, Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre said the release of the bill is a step forward but is undercut by carve outs that would allow discrimination against same-sex couples if marriage equality became a reality.

“This is the first time an Australian Government has released a bill to achieve marriage equality but the introduction of unprecedented and unnecessary exemptions to allow civil celebrants and religious organisations to discriminate is deeply concerning. It is also disappointing that this bill to achieve marriage equality is linked to the proposed plebiscite bill,” said Ms Brown.

The HRLC welcomes the proposed change to the definition of marriage from a union between “a man and a woman” to a union between “two people”. This is clearly inclusive of all LGBTI people and relationships. If passed, the bill would also recognise marriages of same-sex couples married overseas, including couples already married overseas. Included in the bill however are a number of exemptions for civil celebrants, ministers of religion and marriage related goods and services provided by religious organisations.

"Marriage celebrants conduct around 80% of marriages in Australia. Unlike ministers of religion, civil celebrants are appointed to perform a secular function on behalf of the state, and there is no place for discrimination in these ceremonies," said Ms Brown.

The Bill provides that religious ministers would be able to refuse to solemnise a marriage between anyone other than “a man and a woman” if this accords with religious beliefs or is not allowed by their conscience.

Religious bodies or organisations would be allowed to refuse to make facilities available or to provide goods or services for same-sex couples for a wedding ceremony, reception or incidental purposes.

"Religious organisations already benefit from extremely broad exemptions from discrimination laws that allow them to provide services in accordance with their beliefs. This new, undefined reference to 'religious bodies and organisations' broadens the type of organisations to which the exemption might apply," added Ms Brown.

Under both the bill, and existing anti-discrimination laws, private non-religious companies could not refuse the use of facilities, goods or services. For example, a florist could not refuse to provide flowers because they personally don’t support marriage equality.

The plebiscite bill will be debated and voted on in the House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass with Coalition and some crossbench support. The plebiscite bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, with the ALP, the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch stating they will oppose it.

Marriage equality advocates welcomed the ALP's announced position on the plebiscite and urged the Senate to vote on the plebiscite bill this week so a path forward for marriage equality can be achieved this term.

"We’re glad the ALP, the Greens and others have listened to the concerns of the LGBTI community and will vote against the plebiscite bill. It's time for the Parliament to move on and achieve marriage equality through a parliamentary vote," said Ms Brown.

For the media release from Australian Marriage Equality and Australians 4 Equality on the plebiscite bill click here.

For all media queries, please contact:

Anna Brown, Director of Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre, 0422 235 522

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications: 0419 100 519