This article was first published in Star Observer
All Australians should have the same opportunities for love, commitment and happiness and our Parliament has the opportunity to make this a reality with a new marriage equality Bill released by five Liberal MPs yesterday.
In a debate too often mired in seemingly intractable positions and wedge politics, this Bill is a game changer. Not only does it reflect the opinion of the majority of Australians, and delivers equality for same-sex couples, it also ensures that faith communities can continue to celebrate religious marriage.
The fact that this Liberal Bill presents a workable and pragmatic solution to the current impasse on marriage equality should come as no surprise. This piece of legislation reflects the recommendations of a Senate committee inquiry earlier this year that was the most rigorous and comprehensive consideration of the issue ever engaged in by our Parliament.
Too often, marriage equality is viewed within a prism of irreconcilable deeply held views and division between religious interests and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
Led by prominent opponent of marriage equality, Senator David Fawcett, the inquiry produced an historic consensus report that united political parties and delivered a roadmap for legislators that reflected the concerns of both sides of the debate.
Ministers of Religion will be able to continue to conduct ceremonies in accordance with their beliefs – just as they always have – whether that is refusing to marry divorcees, people of different faiths or same-sex couples. This reflects the evidence in the inquiry that religious and LGBTI groups alike agree that singling out same-sex couples for discrimination should be avoided.
In line with the Senate report, the Bill proposes a new category of Religious Marriage Celebrant that includes ministers from small, independent and emerging churches that are not officially recognised religions. The small number of existing civil celebrants who want to perform marriages in accordance with particular religious beliefs can elect to be transferred to this new category. New civil marriage celebrants will not be able to nominate to join this category or discriminate against same-sex couples.
These elements of the Bill achieve a workable compromise by allowing the ‘grandfathering’ of civil celebrants with religious objections, while ensuring that same-sex couples have the certainty and dignity of knowing that civil celebrants are required to uphold civil law at all times. Civil celebrants were introduced to provide a secular alternative to religious marriage ceremonies in the first place so there really is no place for discrimination in these ceremonies.
What happens beyond the actual ceremony? This Bill does confirm exemptions that already exist. Religious organisations will still be able to refuse to hire a church hall for a wedding, for example, if this accords with their faith. Importantly, commercial businesses and other non-religious organisations will not be permitted to discriminate. In my view, these carve-outs are far from ideal. Existing religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws can also permit discrimination beyond what is fair, reasonable or required. However, this Bill is not the time or place to be re-examining these broader issues.
For the first time, we have a Bill that offers a real opportunity for support across the parliament and an opportunity to realise the hopes and dreams of the many LGBTIQ Australians and their families, friends and colleagues who just want to be treated equally under Australian law and marry the person they love.
The time has come for marriage equality. Australians don’t want any more excuses or delay. We want marriage equality and this Bill heading to parliament will deliver it. Let’s get on with it.
Anna Brown is Director of Legal Advocacy of the Human Rights Law Centre and Co-Chair of the Equality Campaign.