What has ‘religious freedom’ got to do with same-sex marriage? Absolutely nothing

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

 

 

Advertisements

A craven Malcolm Turnbull has placed his political survival ahead of marriage equality

It is an article of faith in Australian politics that a referendum question that does not have bipartisan support will fail to secure majority support. The principle is no less relevant in the case of the half-baked postal ballot foisted on Australian voters to decide the issue of same-sex marriage.

There was never any prospect of federal Cabinet agreeing to join the 21st century and unite in support of same-sex marriage, but it is disappointing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to all but absent himself from the plebiscite campaign.

Turnbull, whose time in office has been marked by a conspicuous lack of authority, has been particularly craven on same-sex marriage.

Rather than taking a leadership role in advancing the case for what is a fundamental civil right, Turnbull will limit himself to answering journalists’ questions on the subject and urging people to vote in the ballot.

This is nominally the outcome of a Cabinet decision to absolve ministers – whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ supporters – from actively participating in the plebiscite campaign unless within their own electorates. While the Cabinet position applies to all ministers, this is a weasely ruse whose primary purpose is to keep Turnbull out of the marriage-equality campaign.

It hardly matters whether this was a gag imposed on Turnbull or a strategy devised by Turnbull himself. The Right don’t want any star power that Turnbull may still retain to be mobilised in favour of same-sex marriage and the last thing Turnbull wants is to further alienate his colleagues on the right by being identified with the ‘Yes’ campaign, especially in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote.

For anyone hoping that the plebiscite would free up the Prime Minister to show his true rainbow colours on same-sex marriage and act as a champion for marriage equality their disappointment will run deep. Turnbull’s advocacy will be especially missed as the more strident activists on the ‘No’ side turn up the volume and produce ever-more offensive arguments on behalf of the status quo.

Marriage equality ‘a fourth-order issue’

Turnbull’s abandonment of the cause of same-sex marriage can be put down to political cowardice. It’s damnable, but it’s what most Australians have come to expect of him. However Turnbull has done much more than squirm himself out of a prominent role in the marriage-equality debate.

He has also deliberately sought to diminish the importance of marriage equality, partly to justify his absence from the fray, but in the process leaving same-sex marriage campaigners to their fate.

Turnbull argues that his first duty is to “run the government” which includes focusing on much more important issues than same-sex marriage such as national security, the economy and energy prices.

“Same-sex marriage is an ­important issue but there are a lot of other much more important ­issues for me to focus on,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine a prime minister being more offensive. Same-sex couples wishing for the right to marry – in many cases their children joining in their fervent hope – have been told by their government that theirs is a fourth- or fifth-order issue.

Let us reflect for a moment on what this means: the Turnbull government refused to budge from its preferred option of a plebiscite to decide on marriage equality – rather than let Parliament do its job – because such an important and fundamental change should be voted on by the Australian public. Now the Prime Minister and his ministers argue that they have more important things to do than to actively participate in the campaign.

While the government “encourages” people to vote in what is a voluntary ballot they have done everything in their power to belittle the process.

One wonders how seriously the plebiscite result will be taken. It is not a wild stretch of the imagination to suggest that the lower the turnout the less likely opponents of same-sex marriage within the government will be to accept a ‘Yes’ outcome, particularly a ‘Yes’ vote that falls just over the line.

PM swaps wedding tux for khaki

Labor leader Bill Shorten has already stated that even in the event of a negative result a Labor government would still legislate for same-sex marriage.

That may explain why Turnbull had ramped up attacks on his opposite number, describing Shorten as “the most dangerous left-wing leader of the Labor Party we have seen in generations”.

While Turnbull focuses on the big issues, he is not exactly doing so with a cool head.

On energy, he has become increasingly shrill. Even as the Finkel report languishes in the PM’s bottom drawer, he has hit out at South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, describing his energy plans for the state as “dangerous…ideology and idiocy in equal measures”.

On national security, which Turnbull considers his biggest strength, like Coalition leaders before him, the Prime Minister has gratuitously and prematurely aligned Australia with the United States in the event of war with North Korea.

Swapping his wedding tux for khaki, the Prime Minister thundered that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States”.

“The ANZUS treaty means that if America is attacked, we will come to their aid and if Australia is attacked, the Americans will come to ours. We are joined at the hip.”

If this was meant to sound reassuring it was nothing of the kind, showing the sabre-rattling Prime Minister obscenely willing to fan President Donald Trump’s bellicosity in order to portray himself as a war-time leader.

That is, of course, if Australians are still listening to Malcolm Turnbull. Pulling out of the same-sex marriage campaign will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Australians. They will recognise that taking a discreet position on marriage equality is all about saving his political skin, even if it means jeopardising the cause he once so freely championed.

He must know – and dread – that if the highly compromised postal ballot delivers a ‘No’ result marriage-equality campaigners will lose no time in dubbing Turnbull as the second Prime Minister to break Australia’s heart.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He’s on Twitter @DAngeloFisher