Religious freedom … or religious intolerance?

On November 15, we learned that 61.1 percent of Australians who participated in the Marriage Law postal survey had voted “yes” to the question, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” As a result, the Marriage Amendment Bill, drafted by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, is now being debated in Australia’s Parliament, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicating that he is committed to getting it passed before Christmas. This bill aims to remove discrimination from the existing Marriage Act by amending the definition of “marriage” to include same-sex couples.

The bill includes a series of religious exemption clauses, which lets religious (and some civil) celebrants opt out of performing same-sex marriages, due to respect for “the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their religion, the views of their religious community or their own religious beliefs.”  It also allows certain religious organisations and businesses to refuse to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings, if their refusal conforms to the doctrines or beliefs of their religious community or personal faith. Smith argued that these “opt-out” clauses allowed the bill to strike a “fair balance” in granting same-sex couples equal access to marriage while protecting the freedom of celebrants and religious institutions. 

Smith’s decision to include religious exemption clauses in the Marriage Amendment Bill appears deeply pragmatic, in that it is an attempt to quell the misgivings of religious organisations over the impact that the bill will have on Australia’s cultural and religious life. Such misgivings were clearly, and at times vehemently, expressed during the period in which the Postal Survey was held, including the Anglican Diocese of Sydney donating $1 million to the “No” campaign. Sydney’s Archbishop Glenn Davies made “no apology” for this donation, insisting that any change in the definition of marriage would have “irreparable consequences for our society, for our freedom of speech, our freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.”

If Smith’s bill is passed by parliament, Australia will by no means be the only country that includes a religious exemption clause in their same-sex marriage legislation. The New Zealand Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013 likewise lets religious celebrants refuse to solemnise a same-sex marriage, “if solemnising that marriage would contravene the religious beliefs of the religious body or the religious beliefs or philosophical or humanitarian convictions of the approved organisation.” These exemption clauses essentially grant legal recognition to the fact that religious institutions (particularly the Christian church) are deeply invested in preventing certain people from enjoying the same civic rights as everyone else. In other words, the clauses offer a legal mandate for these institutions to preserve and protect their intolerance of individuals and communities who do not comply with established religious doctrine.

Of course, one person’s intolerance is another’s guarantor of liberty, and the argument is often made that exemption clauses in same-sex marriage bills, such as those mentioned above, are essential to preserving religious freedoms. This is an immensely thorny issue, but what interests me more is the way that these clauses testify to the continued power and privilege of religious institutions within self-identified “secular” countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. Particularly, it highlights the role of religious communities and organisations in condoning, or even encouraging, the prejudices and discriminations faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people living in these countries.

In certain hands, religious doctrines, traditions and teachings can become powerful weapons that are wielded to validate and sustain homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. And, while religion is by no means the only or original source of these prejudices, it can undoubtedly play a part in their perpetuation, granting them divine authority and thus enhancing their influence and appeal. This is an issue that demands urgent attention, particularly given that LGBTI people are significantly more likely to experience poorer mental health outcomes and have greater risk of suicidal behaviours than their peers, due, in large part, to their experiences of stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and abuse.

As the dust settles around the Australian postal survey results, and Senator Smith’s Marriage Amendment Bill makes its way (slowly and painfully perhaps) through the Australian Parliament, perhaps this would be an opportune time for religious institutions, such as the Australian Christian church, to do a spot of navel gazing and reflect on the implications of the religious exemption clauses deemed so important to the success of this bill.

How do these institutions feel about being nationally and globally renowned for their intolerance of diversity and inclusivity? What do they think about their global reputation as formidable roadblocks to legal reforms that seek justice and equality for already marginalised and vulnerable groups? What do they make of the power that they wield in contemporary secular societies – a power which compels governments and lawmakers to placate their interests at the expense of committing fully to LGBTI rights? Is this a reputation to be proud of? Is this the legacy that religious institutions wish to be remembered by in years to come? And how will they minister to their own members who also belong to the LGBTI community, all the while clinging on to legal exemptions that deny these members justice and equality?

I wholeheartedly applaud Senator Smith’s bill, and agree with Senator Penny Wong that the bill’s religious exemption clauses give it a far stronger chance of passing into law. Yet these clauses, I suggest, should be regarded by religious institutions less as a welcome safeguard for “religious freedom” than a source of utter shame, which betrays their unrelenting failure to acknowledge the legitimacy and value of LGBTI lives.

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