The American “religious freedom” movement has made its debut on the Australia political stage with proposals for rolling back anti-discrimination protections as a trade off for marriage equality.
The religious freedom movement arose in the US as the final act of defiance by some conservative Christians in the face of more and more states allowing same-sex marriages.
It seeks to establish a legal right to refuse services, mostly to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, on the basis of the service provider’s religious conscience. Religious freedom laws have been put forward in a number of states, the most notorious of all being Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In origin, the religious freedom movement was about some conservative Christians retreating from what they see as an ever more sinful world. In effect it is about legitimising prejudice by calling it liberty. That’s why laws like Indiana’s have attracted global condemnation and boycotts.
As in the US, calls for religious freedom in Australia have arisen at that stage in the marriage equality debate when reform has seemingly become inevitable. Tim Wilson has proposed wedding service providers with religious convictions should be legally allowed to turn away marrying same-sex couples – as long as they don’t service heterosexual civil weddings as well.
The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, went several steps further suggesting a wide range of faith-based organisations should be free to discriminate against same-sex married couples.
I see no need for any of this. Regarding Wilson’s proposal, there are no calls from Australian wedding service providers for anti-discrimination exemptions. There is no public clamour for such exemptions. The issue is not raised by any of the undecided Liberal politicians I speak to.
Kelly’s concerns are even more out of touch. He asks:
Will religious institutions in Australia be able to follow current policy on shared accommodation on a church site? Will religious schools be able to limit employment to teachers who follow church teaching on sexual relations? Will faith-based adoptive agencies be able to prefer placement with a traditional family unit?
The simple answer is that if they can do those things now, they will continue to be able to do them. If they can’t, they won’t. Marriage equality will change nothing because the matters Kelly is concerned with are governed by adoption and anti-discrimination laws – not the Marriage Act.
If there was a need for greater religious freedom in Australia we would be hearing about it already. Christians would be complaining about providing services to lesbian civil union ceremonies, or being forced to employ transgender teachers or having no choice but to assess gay couples as potential adoptive parents
But they’re not, because most people of faith don’t feel besieged by angry gays and are happy with the protections they currently have. Protections for religious freedom are a solution searching for a problem.
Admittedly, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby obsess over examples from other countries of what they say is “religious persecution” due to marriage equality. But they only ever cite about half a dozen examples, a tiny number given marriage equality prevails in 22 countries with a combined population of over 800 million people.
Almost all are from the US where marriage equality is an exceptionally hot-button issue in the culture wars. That probably explains why “religious freedom” hasn’t been a political issue in any other country that has achieved marriage equality and no legislative amendments were required to protect it.
Even when we look closely at examples from America of religious freedom being “violated”, they usually arose not because of marriage equality (some examples are from states without the reform) but because of the existence of anti-discrimination laws.
So we return to the proposals in Australia for greater religious freedom and what they are really about.
I have no doubt Tim Wilson is sincere in his desire to find a path forward on marriage equality, but talking up the need to protect religious freedoms when they are not actually under attack opens a Pandora’s box.
It feeds the narrative of opponents of marriage equality that the reform should be opposed because of a plethora of so-called “unintended consequences”, when there is no real basis for these fears at all.
It jeopardises bipartisan support for marriage equality legislation, given strong Labor, Green and cross-bench support for the principles of anti-discrimination.
It provides those conservatives who want to delay marriage equality with just the excuse they need: there are serious consequences to this reform that require the kind of careful consideration and detailed legislative drafting that will take many months.
Most of all, as echoed in Kelly’s grab bag of unreal concerns, it opens the door to a movement that seeks to exploit all the ungrounded anxieties raised by marriage equality to roll back the strong anti-discrimination protections Australians have fought hard for and are rightly proud of.
Paul Kelly asks “what is the real ideological objective” of marriage campaigners.
That question is properly asked of those who would use the marriage equality debate as cover to launch an assault on existing human rights protections.