2017 might be the year that Australia finally introduces marriage equality[i].
If it is, it will only be because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and our families, friends and allies, have fought long and hard to make it happen.
However, there is also a very real risk that we end up with something less than genuine equality.
This is because there are some members within the Liberal National Coalition who are willing to support the right of LGBTI couples to marry, but only on the condition that new special rights to discriminate against us are included in any amendments to the Marriage Act.
That is simply not good enough.
As the US Supreme Court found more than 60 years ago[ii], separate but equal is not equal. And so we must reject any attempt to impose a 2nd-class system of marriage for LGBTI Australians, where we can be treated differently to cisgender heterosexual couples, merely because of who we are.
In the same way that we have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to marry, we must also fight for the right to marry equally.
The battleground for this campaign is the Government’s Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, released in October 2016. This is the legislation that the Government would have introduced had its (unnecessary, wasteful and divisive) plebiscite been held, and had it been successful.
While the Bill allows any two people to marry – and therefore would provide LGBTI Australians with the ability to finally tie the knot – it also proposes four new special rights to discriminate against any relationship that is “not the union of a man and a woman[iii].” This includes:
- A specific provision allowing ministers of religion to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[iv] – even though ministers of religion can already reject any couple for any reason. That means this clause is both unnecessary, and unfairly targets our relationships.
- An entirely new right for civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[v]. No other section of the Marriage Act 1961 currently allows these celebrants to discriminate. This homophobic provision is especially concerning given three out of every four weddings in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants.
- A specific provision allowing ‘religious bodies and organisations’[vi] to deny facilities to, and withhold goods and services from, LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[vii]. This has been included despite existing religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, at both Commonwealth and state and territory level, and applies even where these groups are engaged in commercial enterprise.
- A new right for Defence Force chaplains to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[viii]. This is despite the fact these chaplains are public servants, paid for by all taxpayers – including LGBTI Australians – and that they are expected to “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion” (emphasis added)[ix].
None of these new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples are necessary. All are completely unjustified. All must be challenged.
Fortunately, this Bill generally, and these proposed new ‘religious exceptions’ specifically, are currently the subject of a Senate inquiry.
The Select Committee examining this Bill has called for public submissions, which close next Friday (13 January). Full details of the Inquiry, including how to lodge, can be found here.
I encourage you to make your own submission, calling for the Committee, and ultimately the Parliament, to reject these four new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples.
In doing so, you could make the following two main points:
- This Bill is NOT marriage equality
While the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would allow LGBTI couples to finally marry, by including new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples – and only LGBTI couples – the Bill actually establishes a 2nd-class system of marriage for some Australians based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. ‘Separate but equal’ is not equal – which means this Bill would not deliver genuine marriage equality.
- The exceptions included in this Bill do not protect religious freedom, they promote homophobia and transphobia
There are a variety of different religious beliefs about marriage. Some people believe only cisgender heterosexual couples should be able to marry[x]. Others do not believe in divorce, and therefore oppose the right of people to participate in second (or subsequent) weddings. Some even continue to hold the (once widespread) belief that people of different faiths should not marry.
If the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill reflected genuine concerns about protecting ‘religious freedom’, it would allow civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against divorced people, or against inter-faith couples[xi].
The fact that it does not, and that it establishes new special rights to discriminate solely against LGBTI couples, reveals the fundamental truth of this legislation: it has very little to do with protecting religious freedom, and much more to do with promoting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia[xii].
3 Ways to Take Action
If you agree with me, then now is the time to get involved, to get fighting – and writing – to let the Senate Committee, and the Government, know that marriage equality should mean exactly that: equality. And we won’t accept anything less.
Here are three ways you can take action in the next week:
- Write your own submission to the Senate Inquiry. As noted above, details on how to do so can be found here. Alternatively, two LGBTI organisations have designed web platforms to make writing a submission easier:
- Complete these surveys about the Bill. Both the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby and just.equal (& PFLAG Australia) are consulting the LGBTI community about what they think of the proposed religious exceptions. Let them know your views here:
- Sign and share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, demanding that Equal love should not be treated unequally.
Above all, if you think that equal means equal, no ifs, buts, or maybes, then it’s time to get writing…
[i] Of course, if Malcolm Turnbull continues to fail to show any leadership on this issue, we might instead be forced to wait until 2019 or 2020.
[ii] Brown v Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954)
[iii] Interestingly, this phrase would not cover all LGBTI couples – for example, civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains would not be able to reject heterosexual couples where one or both members are transgender and where the couple identifies as a man and a woman.
[iv] Proposed sub-section 47(3)
[v] Proposed new section 47A
[vi] It is worrying that these terms are not defined in the Bill, meaning the number of bodies or organisations allowed to discriminate against LGBTI couples could be high.
[vii] Proposed new section 47B
[viii] Proposed new note to section 81
[ix] For more on why these new special rights to discriminate must be rejected, see The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in Unacceptable.
[x] Of course, they should not be able to impose that belief on others through secular law.
[xi] I am not arguing for either to be made lawful, merely highlighting the double-standard that lies at the heart of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.
[xii] The Government, having revealed its (homophobic) intentions, also cannot now turn around and extend these new special rights to discriminate against divorced people and inter-faith couples because they will only be doing so to ‘cover up’ the anti-LGBTI nature of its original legislation.