One of the cornerstone arguments to emerge in the same-sex marriage debate is that a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality will erode religious freedom. Such cant lays bare the irrelevance of institutional religion in a secular society in which rule of law, not arcane theology, safeguards the rights of all citizens.
Traditional churches are blind to the irony that in demanding the protection of religious freedom they are striking at the freedom of gay and lesbian Australians to marry.
It never ceases to amaze that the pious can be so arrogant. The defenders of the marriage status quo – led by the Australian Christian Lobby – place religious privilege and religious doctrine above the human rights of a group of Australians who for no rational reason are excluded from the institution of marriage.
What is marriage equality but the right to dignity? The right to express love and commitment in a culturally recognised form that is currently only open to one section of the population – at least in Australia?
Churches protest that same-sex marriage offends the sanctity of marriage. There is nothing inherently sacred about marriage, save for the commitment that two people make to each other. Churches are demanding a ‘No’ vote based on an idea of marriage that does not exist in practice. They defend “traditional” marriage as if this is a flawless institution that has retained its perfection over centuries.
Marriage between a man and a woman, including those solemnised in a church, are no more or less prone to the vicissitudes of human relationships. Yet based on their idealised view of marriage churches argue that same-sex marriage would be an affront. It is the churches, not those who advocate marriage equality, that offend the norms, expectations and entitlements of a 21st century society.
Traditional marriage has earned itself no right to exclusivity. The proposition that Australian should vote ‘No’ because the Bible defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman is too ridiculous for words. Such nonsense has no place in a secular society. There is no religious ground that supersedes basic human and civil rights.
Homosexual Australians seeking marriage equality make no claim that they can do better at marriage than their hapless heterosexual brothers and sisters. They simply ask for the same right to have their love solemnised. Whether being married brings them weeks or a lifetime of happiness is not anyone’s business, just as it is not in the case of traditional marriage.
Religious freedom, or religious zealotry?
Religious institutions behave as if marriage is their proprietary product. It is not. But churches are doing more than advocating a ‘No’ vote. They are already preparing to assert their right to “religious freedom” in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.
Not only will they demand the right to refuse to conduct same-sex weddings, they will demand the right not to employ anyone from a same-sex union in their schools, child-care centres, hospitals, aged-care facilities and any other organisation under their aegis. Or indeed anyone who simply supports same-sex marriage.
In an astonishing example of religious zealotry going well beyond the ambit of religious freedom, this week a Presbyterian church in the Victorian regional city of Ballarat refused to marry a couple because they had dared to express support for same-sex marriage on Facebook.
Days after the post, the minister of Ebenezer St John’s summoned the young couple – the bride is 26, the groom 25 – to inform them that he could not marry them, nor would they be permitted to hold their ceremony at the church.
In a letter to the bride published by Fairfax Media the minister wrote:
“After the pre-marital counselling that you attended and the sermons delivered at Ebenezer on this subject, you must surely appreciate that your commitment to same-sex marriage opposes the teaching of Christ Jesus and the scriptural position practiced by the Presbyterian Church of Australia and by me.
“This conflict of views has practical consequences in relation to your upcoming wedding.
“By continuing to officiate it would appear either that I support your views on same-sex marriage or that I am uncaring about this matter. As you know, neither statement is correct.
“Also, if the wedding proceeded in the Ebenezer St John’s church buildings, the same inferences could be drawn about the Presbyterian denomination. Such inferences would be wrong.”
This is an untenable over-reach by the Presbyterian church: not only does the church impose its will on same-sex couples, it even punishes those who dare to express a view in support of same-sex marriage. Why do we tolerate such rubbish?
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull not only tolerates it, he is fully supportive.
“Churches are entitled to marry or not marry whom they please. That is part of religious freedom,” he told Fairfax Media.
“As strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, even more strongly do I believe in religious freedom.”
PM says religious freedom trumps marriage equality
Perhaps it is good politics not to antagonise religious institutions lest it derail the ‘Yes’ campaign. Not so clear is why Turnbull felt it necessary to go the extra mile and declare his belief in religious freedom to be “even stronger” than his commitment to marriage equality.
Even in the event of marriage equality becoming law there is a clue in Turnbull’s trademark timidity that same-sex marriage will be not quite the equal of traditional marriage.
Why do we continue to give religious institutions such a powerful position in society? A position that is increasingly at odds with a secular society and which no longer has the social licence it once did.
If organised religion was embodied in one man, he would currently be in gaol for life for his heinous crimes against innocent children. He would certainly not be treated as a wise elder with a privileged place at the table to deliberate on the future of marriage. Yet religion’s position in society, as recognised by law, remains undiminished.
Churches are in no position to claim the moral authority to impose themselves on society.
We can only hope that an unintended outcome of the postal plebiscite is that Australians come to question why it is that in 2017 religion still has such force in our lives. It is well time to consider why churches continue to qualify for generous tax breaks, legal exemptions and elevated policy influence.
The marriage-equality debate – and the concessions demanded by churches – underscores their irrelevance.
The same-sex marriage debate over the weeks ahead places an overdue spotlight on the issue of marriage equality. The issue should have been decided by Parliament, and Malcolm Turnbull stands condemned that it was not, but even an inadequate “postal survey” is a welcome indicator of Australia’s social maturity. Not so long ago asking Australians to vote on same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable. Alas, our religious institutions possess no such maturity.
So it is to be welcomed that the marriage-equality debate will also shine a light on organised religion in Australia. Their conduct – and their demands in the name of religious freedom in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote – will hopefully prompt long overdue scrutiny of the role of institutional religion in Australia.
Churches have a right to exist and people have a right to worship at those churches, but it is time that the separation of church and state to which we pay lip service was given greater force of law.
Religion in a secular society is a marriage not made in heaven.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher