Just when you thought Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t physically be any more disappointing on marriage equality than he already is, he goes and announces his support for adding new forms of discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill).
That’s right, less than 24 hours after yesterday’s emotional celebrations when that Bill cleared the Senate – something which Turnbull himself tweeted showed ‘Parliament at its best today – the Senate passed the same-sex marriage bill’ – he has revealed he will support multiple negative amendments in the House of Representatives, including some that were explicitly rejected in the upper house.
This significantly increases the chances that the legislation that is ultimately adopted falls well short of genuine marriage equality, even risking the passage of the Bill entirely if we end up with deadlock between the two chambers.
It is unclear whether Turnbull actually believes in the amendments himself, or if he is simply supporting them in a(nother) craven capitulation to capital ‘c’ Conservatives within his party, in a last-ditch effort to save his leadership.
Frankly, my dear readers, I don’t give a damn what his motivation is. Because, far more importantly, it is clear what the impact will be: more discrimination against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI Australians more broadly.
Let’s turn to the possible amendments themselves. Based on media reports in The Australian, and Guardian Australia, it appears Turnbull now supports at least two, probably three, and potentially even more amendments undermining the Smith Bill, which as we already know is a significant compromise. These include:
- Providing all civil celebrants with an ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal conscientious or religious belief
As reported by The Australian, “[t]he Prime Minister supports… provisions that would ensure that marriage celebrants are able to decline to solemnise marriages which they do not wish to solemnise.” Presumably, this means supporting Attorney-General George Brandis’ amendments on this topic.
This proposal is so terrible it is almost unbelievable we have to keep explaining why, but just to reiterate the many reasons why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants:
- Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious, therefore a celebrant’s personal beliefs are irrelevant
- The ability to discriminate does not currently exist with regards to divorcees remarrying, so should not be introduced for LGBTI couples
- Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state, so should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status
- Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious belief
- If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses, and
- Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia, opening the door to further discrimination in the future.
- Reinforcing the ability of charities to discriminate against LGBTI people
These amendments are being sold as a supposed ‘shield’ to protect charities from some unspecified, nefarious action by future governments. In reality, they are more likely to be used as weapons against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, further entrenching the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing their services.
Irrespective of which view you adopt, however, the amendments are completely unnecessary. As revealed by Liberal Senator Dean Smith during Senate debate of his Bill on Tuesday, he wrote to both the Australian Commissioner of Taxation, and the Acting Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commissioner, about the impact of his proposed legislation. From Hansard:
“I asked the charities commissioner two questions. The first was whether a religious charity that currently holds and/or expresses a view of or a position on marriage will be able to continue to do so without any negative impacts on its charitable status following the enactment of amendments to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry – that is, the future act. ‘The short answer’, the commissioner said to me, ‘to this question is yes’.
“The second question I asked the charities commissioner was whether the lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods or services, or hire facilities to same-sex couples or other couples in accordance with the future Marriage Act and current exemptions in federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws would result in any adverse consequences in relation to an entity’s charitable status. ‘The short answer’, he says in correspondence to me, ‘is no’.
“For the sake of completeness, the Australian Taxation Commissioner says:
… a religious charity holding or expressing a view of a religious nature (position on marriage) will not have an impact on [Deductible Gift Recipient] endorsement.
He goes on to say:
Similarly, lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods and services or hire facilities in accordance with the future Marriage Act will be unlikely to impact DGR endorsement. These activities would fall outside the scope of the general DGR categories and would not prevent DGR endorsed religious charities from fulfilling their DGR purposes.”
Turnbull’s own Government agencies – including the Taxation Commissioner himself – have effectively rejected any need for amendments in this area. He should not be jeopardising the introduction of marriage equality for the sake of something that is, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, a Trojan horse for increased discrimination against LGBTI people.
- Including a declaratory statement about ‘religious freedom’ in the Marriage Act
Another Trojan horse for new, adverse treatment of LGBTI Australians is the second of Attorney-General Brandis’ failed amendments: a proposal to add a statement from Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the objects of the Marriage Act itself.
At this stage, there are mixed signals about whether the Prime Minister supports this change. What is not ‘mixed’ – indeed, what is unequivocal – is that such a change must be rejected.
In the words of ALP Senate Leader Penny Wong, during the same debate on Tuesday:
“As has been pointed out by a number of legal advisers, and also referenced in some of the documentation provided by the Human Rights Law Centre, there are some questions about the extent to which there may be unintended adverse consequences in relation to this amendment. I would also make the point that we find it somewhat odd that one would cherrypick the ICCPR in this way. For example, article 18.1 is singled out but not article 18.3, which states:
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
“Obviously, 18.3 constrains to some extent the rights articulated in 18.1 and reflected in the amendment that Senator Brandis has spoken to. I also note that article 26 of the ICCPR commences as follows:
All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.
“I pick up those two aspects of the covenant because it seems to us on this side that there’s obviously, certainly in this chamber and to some extent in the community, an interest in discussing the place of religious belief and the way in which the law might safeguard better the right to have such a belief—the right to hold beliefs—and a discussion about the extent to which that belief might affect the application of Australian law. However, as I have said on a number of occasions today, that is a reasonably complex and at times controversial discussion, and it is certainly a discussion that goes quite directly to the way in which religion is dealt with in a secular state and to the extent to which absolute belief, and limited protection under the law for that, need to be balanced.
“The Labor Party’s view reflects to some extent Senator Brandis’ introduction to this amendment, which is that this is a matter that rightly should go through the process that Prime Minister Turnbull has established [the Ruddock review]. We believe that an amendment of this sort would better be considered in the context of that process.”
Greens’ Senator Nick McKim noted even more serious concerns with this amendment:
“Enacting only the first sentence of article 18.1 leaves out the limitations on freedom of religion that are found in the remainder of 18.1 and in article 18.3 and… transforms what is a limited right into an absolute right.
“…I want to note that there is a trend around the world in Western democracies—and this is the case in Europe as well as the United States—where conservative Christian pro bono law groups are pursuing aggressive litigation strategies to justify discrimination against LGBTIQ people. Including article 18.1 of the ICCPR in Australian law will make freedom of religion justiciable and fuel legal conflict in our country. Last year we saw the Australian Christian Lobby establish the pro bono Human Rights Law Alliance… they established that alliance precisely for the purpose of litigating against LGBTIQ people, and the alliance is already running a number of cases on behalf of conservative Christians, including challenges to anti-discrimination law on the basis of the religious freedom provision in the Tasmanian Constitution, the constitution of my home state. Senator Canavan described this amendment as ‘a shield’. It’s not a shield; it’s a sword. It’s a sword that will be wielded by the conservative right against LGBTIQ people in this country, and that’s why it should be stridently opposed.”
I started this post by expressing my disbelief that Malcolm Turnbull could have found a new way to let me, and LGBTI Australians, down. Again.
But, putting aside my own incredulity, that’s exactly what he’s done. Again.
Even after deciding that LGBTI Australians must be subjected to an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on our fundamental human rights.
Even after that was rejected by the Senate, and he determined that we would be subjected to an unprecedented three-month, $100 million postal survey instead.
Even after Australians overwhelmingly voted Yes, and he refused to put forward marriage equality legislation that simply amended the definition, and recognized foreign marriages – without additional discrimination against LGBTI couples.
Even after the Smith Bill was passed by the Senate. Now that legislation that would finally allow all LGBTI couples to marry is before the House of Representatives, and its passage is so close we can almost touch it, the Prime Minister is still finding new ways to treat us as second-class citizens.
But, just as we’ve overcome all of the previous hurdles that have been placed in our way, we must do everything we can to clear this one too.
That means taking action one more time to say that second-class is not good enough. That we won’t accept new forms of discrimination as part of any marriage equality Bill. That the House of Representatives must reject any amendments that can be used to discriminate against us.
Please make sure you complete the #equalmeansequal webform, calling on MPs to vote against new discrimination: www.equal.org.au/equalmeansequal
Because now is definitely not the time to hold your peace.