What to Expect, and What to Fear, from the Religious Discrimination Bill

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is overdue.

 

Conceived eight months ago, when the Bill was announced as part of the Government’s response to the Religious Freedom Review in December 2018 Attorney-General Christian Porter stated that “we are well-advanced on the drafting and… we would have [it] out early [this] year, so that people can see it”.[i]

 

Yet in late August 2019 this legislation remains nowhere to be seen – at least not in public, and definitely not by the LGBTI community (although given Morrison’s consultation with 21 religious leaders,[ii] of various faiths, in early August it is a safe bet they have been advised of its key features).

 

The longer the gestational period for the Religious Discrimination Bill is, and the more details that are kept hidden from the people who it could adversely affect – LGBTI Australians, women, single parents, de factos and divorced people – the greater the levels of collective anxiety about what it may contain.

 

So, what can we expect when Morrison and Porter are ‘expecting’?

 

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If we are to take the Attorney-General at his word, we have nothing to fear from this reform. From the time it was first announced, Porter has consistently stated that it would be relatively straight-forward:

 

The architecture for discrimination legislation in Australia is well-known, it’s not overly complicated. An attribute is defined – such as age or race or sex or disability or, in this case, the adherence to a religion or the right to not adhere to a religion – and then certain prohibitions are placed on people in terms of their treatment of other Australians based on that attribute. So you are protected from discrimination because of that attribute and then there are certain exemptions drafted as is appropriate. I don’t think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture.[iii]

 

He has made similarly reassuring comments since the 18 May election:

 

“Porter said the government was doing ‘precisely what we said we would do’ at the election. He believed a ‘classical formulation of rights’ that protected people from the behaviour of other people through the architecture of anti-discrimination bills was superior to a religious freedom bill.”[iv]

 

And just today: “Mr Porter told The Australian that the final bill would deliver a religious discrimination act that ‘mirrors other anti-discrimination acts such as those already covering race, sex and aged discrimination’”.[v]

 

Based on these comments, the Morrison Government should shortly give birth[vi] to a Religious Discrimination Bill that, similar to something like the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), protects people against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, and nothing else.

 

Such a narrow law would in fact be a welcome development, especially because it would protect religious minorities against discrimination – something that is long overdue in multicultural Australia.

 

But it would not be welcomed by everyone, especially not religious fundamentalists like the Australian Christian Lobby, and parts of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, who have been relentlessly campaigning for a more expansive Religious Freedom Bill, one that would provide people of faith with the ability to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex and relationship status (among other attributes).

 

And that’s why the delay in releasing the Bill is so concerning. Because preparing a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill is a relatively straight-forward task, and one that should have been completed months ago.

 

Whereas cooking up a Religious Freedom Bill is a much more complicated process, as more and more potential ‘nasties’ are added into the mix. Which is one possible reading of media reports from early July suggesting the legislation has ‘already had more than 50 drafts.’[vii]

 

So, if the Morrison Government is indeed preparing to introduce a Religious Freedom Bill, what exactly should LGBTI Australians be afraid of?

 

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My number one worry is that the legislation will undermine our existing framework of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections.

 

Now, I am the first to admit that these laws are deeply flawed[viii] (in most jurisdictions other than Tasmania anyway) and in need of significant reform, including to remove the overly-generous religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people.

 

The problem is that the Religious Discrimination Bill could make things much, much worse.

 

For example, the Government could create a positive right for religious individuals and organisations to ‘manifest’ their religious belief, even where it has a negative impact on the rights of others, such as the right to be protected against discrimination.

 

They could explicitly provide that the Religious Discrimination Bill overrides the laws of state and territories that establish better protections for LGBTI people. Even if they don’t include a ‘cover the field’ type provision, depending on how they legislate any inconsistency between Commonwealth and State and Territory laws could invalidate the latter.

 

To take a specific example, the Religious Discrimination Bill could override the anti-discrimination laws in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory which currently protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. And it could preclude other jurisdictions, like NSW and Victoria, from adopting the same approaches in the future.

 

Another way in which the Religious Discrimination Bill could undermine anti-discrimination protections for other groups, is through the inclusion of new ‘objectives clauses’ in all Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, as recommended by the Religious Freedom Review.[ix]

 

Recommendation 3: Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should consider the use of objects, purposes or other interpretive clauses in anti-discrimination legislation to reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights, including freedom of religion.

 

The risk lies in how this recommendation is implemented. It is possible that the Government does what then-Attorney-General George Brandis tried to do during the marriage legislation debate in November 2017, and only incorporate Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

 

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

 

Significantly, Brandis did so while excluding the equally-important Article 18(3):

 

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.[x]

 

If the Government adopts this approach, prioritising the objective of religious freedom over other human rights, we can be in no doubt the (misnamed) Human Rights Law Alliance will file as many legal ccomplaints at it takes to have courts reinterpret LGBTI anti-discrimination laws as narrowly as possible.

 

Just this week we also discovered that the Religious Discrimination Bill could provide anti-discrimination ‘protection’ not just to individuals, but also to religious organisations[xi] – something that is unprecedented in Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.

 

As Anna Brown from Equality Australia stated:

 

It would be extremely unorthodox for the religious discrimination bill to include provisions to protect organisations or religious institutions given the historical focus of discrimination law in protecting the rights and dignity of individuals.

 

Another risk from the Commonwealth creating positive rights for people to ‘manifest’ their religious belief is that it could undermine LGBTI anti-vilification laws in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.[xii]

 

Currently, none of those jurisdictions include ‘religious discussion’ as a defence to their vilification provisions (although the Hodgman Liberal Government in Tasmania tried to introduce this defence in the last term of parliament, but was defeated in their upper house).

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill could instead make it easier for people in those jurisdictions to vilify LGBTI people as long as they could say this vilification was motivated by their religious beliefs.

 

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The second major fear is that we could end up with a system where religious belief attracts more rights than other protected attributes, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status/sex characteristics.

 

For example, there is a possibility (albeit small) that the Religious Discrimination Bill will create anti-vilification protections for religious belief.

 

Which, in principle, is perfectly reasonable – because nobody deserves to be vilified on the basis of who they are (although religious vilification laws would need to be carefully crafted so as not to create de facto blasphemy laws).

 

The problem arises because it would be only the second attribute to attract protection against vilification under Commonwealth law – the other being racial vilification prohibited under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

 

None of sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status attract equivalent protections. No matter how plaintively religious fundamentalists are performing their persecution at the moment (especially regarding the Folau case), it is impossible to argue that vilification against people because of their religious belief is any more common, or harmful, than homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic vilification.

 

There is another situation, however, where it is already certain that religious Australians will end up with greater human rights representation than LGBTI people – because the Morrison Government has committed to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

In principle, a Religious Discrimination Commissioner (along the lines of the existing Race, Sex, Age and Disability Commissioners) makes sense – although its focus should be on removing discrimination against people on the basis of religion, not prosecuting the case for ever-greater ‘religious freedoms’.

 

In practice, though, even the Government’s own Religious Freedom Review, chaired by the hand-picked former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, found that a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Commissioner was unnecessary:

 

Recommendation 19: The Australian Human Rights Commission should take a leading role in the protection of freedom of religion, including through enhancing engagement, understanding and dialogue. This should occur within the existing commissioner model and not necessarily through the creation of a new position [emphasis added].

 

Appointing a Religious Freedom Commissioner would also create a stark contrast with LGBTI Australians, who, despite being protected against discrimination following the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, still do not have a human rights commissioner of our own.[xiii]

 

Therefore, if either or both religious anti-vilification laws and a Religious Freedom Commissioner are introduced, LGBTI Australians will quite rightly be left wondering why some Australians are more equal than others.

 

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My third major worry concerns a litany of other new special rights that could be created for religious individuals and organisations, across a range of other laws.

 

We have already seen a preview of this, with the Government’s legislative agenda, published on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,[xiv] suggesting they will introduce not just a Religious Discrimination Bill, but also a Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill and a Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill.

 

The latter two bills in particular will ‘amend existing Commonwealth legislation relating to freedom of religion, including amendments to marriage law, [and] charities law.’

 

The reference to marriage law may be linked to Recommendation 12 of the Religious Freedom Review, which stated:

 

The Commonwealth should progress legislative amendments to make it clear that religious schools are not required to make available their facilities, or to provide goods or services, for any marriage, provided that the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

 

This is wrong in practice – if a religious school is offering its facilities, goods or services to the public (usually to make a profit), there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it should be able to reject couples simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.

 

But it is even worse in principle. As a result of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, Australia already has one of the worst same-sex marriage laws in the world.[xv] That legislation allowed existing civil celebrants to register in order to be able to refuse to officiate at ceremonies for LGBTI couples based on nothing more than their personal prejudice.

 

The 2017 marriage amendments also explicitly incorporated religious exceptions into the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) for the first time, granting religious organisations the ability to refuse to provide wedding-related services (even where those services were offered to the public on a commercial basis).

 

We should be aiming to purge these discriminatory provisions from the Marriage Act, not add to them with even more religious exceptions, this time to further entrench the legal privileges enjoyed by religious schools.

 

The amendment to charities law is likely to relate to implementation of the following recommendation of the Religious Freedom Review:

 

Recommendation 4: The Commonwealth should amend section 11 of the Charities Act 2013 to clarify that advocacy of a ‘traditional’ view of marriage would not, of itself, amount to a ‘disqualifying purpose’.

 

This is despite the fact that, during the 2017 marriage amendments, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission itself advised the Senate that such amendments were unnecessary.

 

Given same-sex marriage has now been legal for more than 18 months, there have also been no real-world examples of when this protection was actually required (if there had been, nobody would have been able to miss the squeals from the Australian Christian Lobby).

 

Even worse, the charities amendment could go further and protect other specific ‘religious beliefs’, including those proposed by then-Treasurer Morrison in his unsuccessful amendment to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2019,[xvi] such as:

 

‘the family structure of a man and a woman united in marriage with their children is a fundamental building block of human society, and this family structure has significant advantages for the nurture and raising of children…

‘the gender difference and complementarity of men and women is an inherent and fundamental feature of human society and is reflected in the gender difference and complementarity of a man and a woman united in marriage… [and]

‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth.’

 

It goes without saying that these offensive provisions should be kept out of the Charities Act 2013, or from any Australian law for that matter.

 

There are a range of other possible amendments that would increase, rather than reduce, discrimination in Australian society.

 

This includes changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 to specifically provide that employment Codes of Conduct cannot restrict the expression of religious views in the workplace no matter how offensive they may be to their colleagues or clients.

 

It could also include allowing parents or guardians to withdraw their children from any school class they morally disagree with, along the lines of this provision from Liberal Senator James Paterson’s failed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017:[xvii]

 

if a person genuinely believes that material taught by the educational institution in a class is not consistent with the relevant marriage belief or relevant belief held by the person, the person may request the principal of the educational institution to… release the student from attendance of that class and any subsequent class.

 

Obviously, with a definition that broad, we could see parents withdrawing their children from a wide range of classes, anything from health and physical education, to science (where evolution may be taught) or even history.

 

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There are too many other possible negative amendments to even try to mention here. The list is as long as the imagined persecution of religious fundamentalists is wide.

 

It should be acknowledged that some of these amendments are more likely to be introduced, and passed, than others. I would sincerely hope that the Government simply ignores the more extreme calls for new special rights to discriminate.

 

But this is hope rather than expectation because, despite committing to let us see their Religious Discrimination Bill early this year, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have yet to be formally consulted on its contents.

 

In this vacuum, it is only natural for all groups who stand to lose from the Religious Discrimination Bill – not just LGBTI people, but women, single parents, de factos and divorced people too – to be fearful about what it may contain.

 

The only way for the Morrison Government to assuage these fears is to ensure that it produces a Religious Discrimination Bill, along the lines of the Age Discrimination Act, rather than a Religious Freedom Bill. And then to ensure that its legislation meets community expectations by engaging in genuine consultation with all sections of society, including LGBTI Australians.

 

I guess we’ll find out which option they’ve chosen in the days and weeks ahead.

 

Christian Porter

What kind of Religious Discrimination Bill will Attorney-General Christian Porter deliver?

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[ii] Scott Morrison meets with faith leaders on religious freedom bill but not LGBTQI advocates, Star Observer, 7 August 2019.

[iii] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[iv] Religious discrimination bill will safeguard people of faith, says attorney-general, Guardian Australia, 8 July 2019.

[v] Catholics, Scott Morrison to clash on religious freedom, The Australian, 20 August 2019.

[vi] And I promise that’s the end of my tortured metaphor…

[vii] ‘A pox on both their houses’: Senator warns of voter backlash if religious freedoms not protected, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2019.

[viii] See A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ix] Religious Freedom Review: Final Report.

[x] Such as the right to be protected against discrimination, as found in Article 26 of the ICCPR:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

[xi] Coalition pressured to include protections for religious institutions in discrimination bill, Guardian Australia, 15 August 2019.

[xii] NSW is the only other jurisdiction that includes protections against LGT vilification, although it does allow religious discussion as a defence. See for example section 38S(2)(c) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977:

a public act, done reasonably and in good faith, for academic, artistic, scientific, research or religious discussion or instruction purposes or for other purposes in the public interest, including discussion or debate about and expositions of any act or matter [emphasis added].

[xiii] See Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

[xiv] See the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet website.

[xv] See No, we don’t have genuine marriage equality yet.

[xvi] From Parliament House website.

[xvii] From Senator Paterson’s website.

No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.

 

12 months ago today, the House of Representatives passed Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017.

 

It was the culmination of more than 13 years of campaigning by Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities.

 

When that law took effect, two days later, Australia finally permitted same-sex couples to wed and recognised the marriages of most[i] LGBTI couples.

 

But we did not achieve genuine marriage equality – nor do we enjoy it exactly one year later.

 

This is because the terms and conditions which apply to the marriages of LGBTI couples after 9 December 2017 are different to those which applied to cisgender heterosexual couples before that date.

 

First, and most importantly, at the time of writing, forced trans divorce – where a transgender person who is already married cannot gain access to accurate identity documentation unless they first divorce their partner – still exists in Western Australia and Tasmania[ii] (while legislation to abolish forced trans divorce has only passed in the Northern Territory in the past fortnight).

 

One of the positive aspects of last year’s marriage Bill is that it included a 12-month phase out of exceptions to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which allowed states and territories to enforce these discriminatory laws.

 

Which means that, from this Sunday, trans people who are already married in WA and Tasmania will be able to lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) about their mistreatment under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA) and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999 (Tas).

 

Presumably, they will also be able to seek a new birth certificate through this process (although whether the respective state Governments provide one remains to be seen).

 

Nevertheless, for as long as forced trans divorce sits on the statute books in any Australian jurisdiction, and we compel some trans people who are already married to take action with the AHRC – or even have to go to Federal Court – just to gain access to accurate identity documentation, it is inaccurate to say we have genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

[Update May 2019: Western Australia abolished its forced trans divorce laws in February 2019, while Tasmania removed its own forced trans divorce provisions in April 2019, taking effect earlier this month. This means that – finally – forced trans divorce is history.]

 

Second, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 didn’t just allow LGBTI couples to wed – it also inserted new ‘religious exceptions’ into the Marriage Act 1961 itself. For example, it gave existing civil celebrants the ability to nominate themselves as ‘religious marriage celebrants’ and thereby refuse to perform the ceremonies of same-sex couples.

 

Importantly, this didn’t just apply to civil celebrants who were ‘ministers of religion’ of unrecognised religions (sub-section 39DD(1), which is at least arguably consistent with freedom of religion).

 

It also allowed existing civil celebrants to gain access to these special privileges based on nothing more than their personal beliefs. As is now set out in sub-section 39DD(2) of the Marriage Act 1961:

 

Marriage celebrants who wish to be religious marriage celebrants on the basis of their religious beliefs

(2) The Registrar of Marriage Celebrants must identify a person as a religious marriage celebrant on the register of marriage celebrants if:

(a) the person was registered as a marriage celebrant under Subdivision C of this Division immediately before Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commenced; and

(b) the person gives the Registrar notice that the person wishes to be identified as a religious marriage celebrant on the register:

(i) in writing; and

(ii) in a form approved by the Registrar; and

(iii) within 90 days after Part 1 of Schedule 1 of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commences; and

(c) the choice is based on the person’s religious beliefs [emphasis added].

 

In effect, a civil celebrant who was registered before 9 December 2017 could simply sign-up to be able to say ‘no gays allowed’ (or no lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people allowed either).[iii]

 

[Update 13 December 2018: In fact, as revealed by the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review Report, 406 existing civil celebrants registered to take advantage of these new special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Which, to be honest, is even more people choosing prejudice over equal love than I had anticipated.]

 

Remember that these celebrants are not ministers of religion, and the ceremonies they officiate need not be religious. There is also no test of their beliefs – it is based solely on self-declaration.

 

In practice, this provision has very little to do with actual religious freedom, but instead provides new legal protections to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as long as it is dressed up as ‘religious’.

 

That much is made abundantly clear by the fact similar provisions had never been introduced to ‘protect’ civil celebrants who wanted to refuse to (re-)marry people who had previously been divorced, or to reject ceremonies for couples of different faiths – both of which arouse strong religious beliefs for many people.

 

These provisions were introduced only when LGBTI couples were finally allowed to marry, demonstrating that they are not aimed at protecting genuine religious freedom at all – their real target is undermining LGBTI equality.

 

This is obviously a terrible provision in and of itself. It also sets a negative precedent for other laws.

 

After all, if civil celebrants – who are in reality a small business, offering commercial services to the public at large – are allowed to discriminate against their customers on the basis of the customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity, then why shouldn’t other businesses be allowed to do the same (a point that religious fundamentalists made frequently during the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review).

 

Indeed, that brings me to the third reason why we still don’t have genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

Amidst all of the celebrations of the passage of same-sex marriage (and yes, as someone engaged to be married, I still think some celebration was justified), I wonder how many people understand that the following is now written into the Marriage Act:

 

47B Bodies established for religious purposes may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

(2) Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods or services provided, whether for payment or not.

(3) This section does not limit the grounds on which a body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage.

(4) To avoid doubt, a reference to a body established for religious purposes has the same meaning in this section as it has in section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

(5) For the purposes of subsection (1), a purpose is reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of marriage if it is intrinsic to, or directly associated with, the solemnisation of the marriage [emphasis in original].

 

This is an incredibly broad exception, applying to anything provided by a religious organisation that has anything to do with a LGBTI wedding – even where it is provided by a service that advertises to the public at large and is run for profit.

 

The most generous interpretation of the inclusion of this amendment is that it merely replicates, and reinforces, the existing religious exceptions found in section 37(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (provisions which have come under scrutiny this week because they also allow discrimination by religious schools against LGBT students and teachers).

 

But, if that is the case, their inclusion in the Marriage Act is entirely unnecessary. And for a reform that has powerful symbolic value, what does it say about the passage of same-sex marriage that it was accompanied by these equally symbolic, but discriminatory, amendments.

 

On the other hand, it is arguable that the addition of section 47B has actually increased the range of circumstances in which religious organisations can discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

This is particularly the case in relation to Tasmania, where the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 remains the best practice LGBTI discrimination law in Australia.

 

This is because the religious exceptions in section 47B of the Marriage Act 1961 are framed in a positive way (‘a body established for religious purposes may refuse…’), whereas the existing Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exceptions are phrased in a negative way (‘Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects…’).

 

This is an important distinction because it is more likely that a positively-framed religious exception will override the anti-discrimination laws of jurisdictions which are inconsistent. In practice, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 has likely allowed new forms of discrimination in our most Southern state.

 

Even if that interpretation is incorrect, it should again be highlighted that this type of exclusionary provision was never needed to allow religious organisations to refuse to serve couples where one or both had previously been divorced, or where the couple had different religious backgrounds.

 

Section 47B was only introduced when LGBTI couples were allowed to walk down the aisle. It’s true purpose is to allow religious bodies – even where they are advertise to the public at large and are run for a profit – to tell same-sex couples to go somewhere else.[iv]

 

Perhaps the most disappointing part about the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 is that, despite being one of the worst marriage amendment Bills ever introduced into Commonwealth Parliament,[v] it was signed-off on by Australian Marriage Equality (AME), and the Equality Campaign, supposedly on behalf of the LGBTI community.

 

In the days after the announcement of the postal survey results, they presented Senator Dean Smith’s Bill as a fait accompli, arguing for its passage without calling for the removal of its unnecessary provisions regarding existing civil celebrants or wedding-related services, effectively making them accomplices to this new discrimination.

 

In my opinion, AME/The Equality Campaign were wrong to do so.

 

They were wrong on principle. As an organisation purporting to advocate for marriage equality, they should have been calling for genuine equality, not defending the inclusion of provisions that were never needed for anyone else, but were only introduced to target LGBTI Australians. Their acquiescence makes it harder to push for the removal of these provisions in the future.

 

They were wrong on strategy. The religious fundamentalists inside the Coalition Government were the ones who had pushed for the unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive postal survey – and they lost, with the majority of Australians showing they supported the equal treatment of all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

That is what the LGBTI community should have been demanding: full equality and nothing less. If the Coalition Government refused to pass it because it did not include new rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples, even after imposing an unprecedented $80.5 million three-month national opinion poll, then they would have experienced the biggest of backlashes. It was not up to the LGBTI community to save the Government from itself.

 

And they were wrong on process, because they never secured the informed consent of the LGBTI community to these changes. They never explained, in detail, what had been given up and why, and they never asked lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people whether it was a price they were prepared to pay.

 

Indeed, when other organisations like just.equal and PFLAG Australia did ask the community what they thought, the response was generally unequivocal – there must be no new discrimination.[vi] In the absence of other evidence, that is the position I think AME/The Equality Campaign should have adopted.[vii]

 

It is likely I will be criticised, possibly quite strongly, for writing this (and especially those last few paras). Many will argue that what’s done is done, and should therefore be left alone.

 

Maybe.

 

Except I would argue that what was done last year – the inclusion of new discriminatory provisions in the Marriage Act itself – needs to be undone.

 

In order to do so, we need to know what exactly is in the Act, and how and why it was included. And then we need to work out a strategy for ensuring sections 39DD(2) and 47B are removed from the statute books so that the stain of discrimination is washed clean, permanently.

 

Because for as long as any LGBTI couple is turned away by a homophobic or transphobic civil celebrant (calling themselves a ‘religious marriage celebrant’), and for as long as religious organisations enjoy special privileges to discriminate in the provision of wedding-related goods, services or facilities, then we don’t enjoy genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

House of Reps Vote

The moment Commonwealth Parliament passed the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017. It introduced same-sex marriage. But it isn’t marriage equality.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] See the discussion of forced trans divorce below.

[ii] Legislation to abolish forced trans divorce – as well as making the inclusion of gender on birth certificates optional – has passed Tasmania’s Legislative Assembly, but it is unclear if or when it will pass the Legislative Council.

Legislation to abolish forced trans divorce passed Western Australia’s lower house in late 2018. It was finally passed by the Legislative Council on 12 February 2019, leaving Tasmania as the last state yet to abolish Forced Trans Divorce.

[iii] Authorised under section 47A:

Religious marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if the celebrant’s religious beliefs do not allow the celebrant to solemnise the marriage

Grounds for refusal not limited by this section

(2) This section does not limit the grounds on which a religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage.

[iv] There is a fourth problem with the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 and that is it reinforces the ability of defence force chaplains to discriminate in terms of which marriage ceremonies they will officiate. As outlined in section 81 of the Marriage Act 1961:

(2) A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if any of the following applies:

(a) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the chaplain’s religious body of religious organisation;

(b) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(c) the chaplain’s religious beliefs do not allow the chaplain to solemnise the marriage.

Grounds for refusal not limited by this section

(3) This section does not limit the grounds on which an authorised celebrant (including a chaplain) may refuse to solemnise a marriage.

This provision is offensive because military chaplains are public servants, paid for by the taxpayer (including of course LGBTI taxpayers), and obligated to serve all of the people supposedly under their pastoral care. They should be required to provide these services to all ADF personnel, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity – and if they cannot, they should find another job.

On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that defence force chaplains already had the ability to determine who they performed marriages for (although the revised section 81 made this power even clearer) meaning it is somewhat distinct from the existing civil celebrant, and wedding-related services, religious exceptions, both of which are genuinely new ‘rights’ to discriminate.

[v] Perhaps equal worst with Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, which allowed all civil celebrants to turn away LGBTI couples, but which did not insert new general religious exceptions in the Marriage Act itself.

Liberal Senator James Paterson’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017 – written in conjunction with the Australian Christian Lobby – was obviously far worse than both, but it was never formally introduced.

[vi] See the results of their November 2017 community survey here.

In particular:

  • 63.1% of respondents opposed the Smith Bill’s civil celebrant provisions
  • 86.9% opposed the wedding-related services exceptions, and
  • 77.4% opposed provisions allowing military chaplains to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI ADF personnel.

Importantly, 53.7% of respondents indicated they were willing to wait until marriage equality could be achieved without such provisions (while only 27.9% were not willing to wait and 18.4% were neutral on this issue).

[vii] For more on these issues, see Rodney Croome’s excellent recent article in New Matilda, ‘Yes Yes No: Why the History of Marriage Equality Must be Told Accurately’.

Liberals Claiming Credit for Marriage Equality Can Get in the Bin

Next Thursday, 15 November, is the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the results of the same-sex marriage postal survey, in which 61.6% of Australians said yes to equality.

 

And December 7 will mark 12 months since the passage of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, which finally legalised same-sex marriage in this country.

 

With both milestones rapidly approaching, it is likely we will witness a large number of Liberal Party MPs and Senators try to claim credit for achieving marriage equality.

 

Indeed, now-former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kicked off this predictable right-wing festival of self-congratulation on Thursday night’s QandA,[i] commenting that:

 

“You know, think of the big social reforms, legalising same-sex marriage. I mean, what a gigantic reform that was, I was able to do that … I legislated it, right? So I delivered it.”

 

This statement is about as far removed from the truth as the nonsense that emanates daily from Donald Trump’s twitter account.

 

Rather than ‘delivering’ this important reform, the Liberal Party was in fact the greatest obstacle standing between LGBTI Australians and the right to marry.

 

In case you disagree – or have forgotten the destructive role played by the Liberals on this issue over many years – here’s a reminder of what they actually did:

 

  1. The Liberal Party banned marriage equality in the first place

 

It was John Howard’s Liberal-National Government that prohibited same-sex marriage in August 2004.[ii] While this was prompted by couples who had wed overseas seeking recognition of their marriages under Australian law, it was primarily motivated by the desire to wedge the Labor Party on this issue ahead of the federal election later that year. Sadly it would not be the last time the Liberal Party played with the lives of LGBTI people for base political reasons.

 

  1. The Liberal Party refused to allow Australians to marry overseas

 

The Howard Liberal-National Government actually went further than merely refusing to recognise the marriages of couples who had wed overseas. They then refused to issue Certificates of No Impediment to Australians who wanted to get married in countries where it was legal, even where one member of the couple was from the other, more-progressive country. This was an incredibly petty and mean-spirited move.

 

Fun Fact: The Attorney-General who implemented this pathetic policy was the same person who led the recent Religious Freedom Review which recommended that religious schools continue to be allowed to discriminate against LGBT students and staff, one Philip Ruddock.

 

  1. The Liberal Party voted against marriage equality in September 2012

 

It took eight years before there was a genuine opportunity to repeal the Howard Liberal-National Government’s ban on same-sex marriage. In late 2012, Parliament voted on ALP MP Stephen Jones’ private members’ bill.

 

In line with the hard-fought, and hard-won, decision at its December 2011 National Conference, the Gillard Labor Government gave its members a conscience vote. The majority of ALP MPs and Senators voted in favour of marriage equality.[iii]

 

On the other hand, every single Liberal Party MP and Senator, bar one, voted against same-sex marriage. That includes then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, George Brandis and Dean Smith. The only notable, and noble, exception was Queensland Senator Sue Boyce.

 

The Liberal Party cannot expect to be rewarded for the fact that same-sex marriage was legalised on December 2017 when they were the ones who stopped it from being passed more than five years earlier.

 

  1. The Liberal Party refused to hold a parliamentary vote on marriage equality

 

Following its election in September 2013, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Government simply refused to hold another ordinary parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage. This recalcitrant approach continued even after it became apparent the majority of MPs and Senators now supported marriage equality.

 

  1. The Liberal Party challenged the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws

 

While the Abbott Liberal-National Government did absolutely nothing to achieve marriage equality in Commonwealth Parliament, they did take action in at least one area: they challenged the validity of the recently-passed ACT Government’s same-sex marriage laws in the High Court.

 

In fact, this was one of the first things the newly-elected government did on any issue, full stop, revealing its fundamental priority was to stop marriage equality in any way possible.

 

This challenge was ultimately successful, meaning that the marriages of 31 couples were effectively annulled.

 

Fun Fact: The Attorney-General who instigated this High Court challenge, that overturned the marriages of 62 people who his own Government would not allow to marry because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, would later claim that marriage equality was one of his, and his Government’s, greatest achievements, one George Brandis.

 

  1. The Liberal Party proposed an unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive plebiscite

 

In August 2015, with public support for marriage equality continuing to build, and the Abbott Liberal-National Government under mounting pressure to finally do something on this topic, they chose not to do the one thing that would actually resolve it (hold a parliamentary vote).

 

Instead, after a six-hour joint party-room meeting, they proposed a same-sex marriage plebiscite. Despite changing leaders the following month, new-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull continued to support this policy, including in the lead-up to the 2016 Federal election and beyond.

 

A plebiscite like this was essentially unprecedented – there had been only one plebiscite in the previous 98 years, and that was on the national anthem. It was unnecessary, and – at an estimated cost of $158.4 million – it was fundamentally wasteful too. LGBTI Australians also justifiably feared that, subjecting our relationships and rights to months of public debate would be incredibly divisive, and cause significant harm to the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

It should be remembered that the idea for a plebiscite was only being pushed by those who opposed marriage equality, including Abbott himself, the Australian Christian Lobby and other religious extremists. It was never designed with the best interests of the LGBTI community in mind.

 

  1. The Liberal Party held an unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive postal survey

 

After months of intense lobbying by LGBTI community advocates and organisations, the ALP, Greens and members of the cross-bench rejected the Turnbull Liberal-National Government’s plebiscite in the Senate in October 2016.

 

Despite this, Prime Minister Turnbull and the Coalition still refused to hold a straight-forward parliamentary vote. Instead, in August 2017 they proposed a same-sex marriage ‘postal survey’.

 

This was even more unprecedented, and was an abuse of the power of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ power to collect, well, statistics. Despite the fact the High Court found it was technically lawful, it could at best be described as ethically dodgy, and at worst a perversion of Australian democracy.

 

Like the plebiscite, the postal survey was entirely unnecessary, and completely wasteful, ultimately costing taxpayers $80.5 million. And for LGBTI Australians and rainbow families its impact was exactly as bad as anticipated, unleashing a torrent of homophobia and transphobia, with the worst attacks of the bigoted No campaign reserved for trans and gender diverse young people.

 

Of course, the architects of the postal survey didn’t care about this negative outcome. Because the postal survey was never about us. It was put forward as a quick political fix for the Liberal Party, who knew they couldn’t continue to oppose marriage equality in the lead-up to the 2019 Federal election, but whose homophobic party-room members refused to hold a parliamentary vote without conducting a costly (in multiple senses of the word) public debate beforehand.

 

And if you disagree with this analysis, perhaps you’ve forgotten whose idea the postal survey was, one Peter Dutton.

 

  1. The Liberal Party didn’t actually pass marriage equality

 

This point might sound strange (especially to new readers of this blog), but it is an important one to make. Because while Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 finally granted same-sex and gender diverse[iv] couples the right to marry, it did not deliver true equality.

 

A hint lies in the title. This legislation did not just amend the Marriage Act 1961 to ensure marriage was available to all couples, it also added new rights for individuals and organisations to discriminate against LGBTI couples on the basis of religious prejudice.

 

This included permitting existing civil celebrants to register as ‘religious marriage celebrants’ and consequently putting up signs saying ‘no gays allowed’. These are not ministers of religion, and the ceremonies they conduct are not religious. But the law, as passed, allows these individuals to discriminate on the basis of their homophobia and transphobia.

 

Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act also introduced offensive provisions allowing discrimination by religious organisations in the Marriage Act itself. This includes section 47B:

 

A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

 

Similar provisions allowing discrimination by religious organisations already existed in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, so at best they were unnecessary here. At worst, because this amendment was phrased as a ‘positive right’, this allows new discrimination, in particular because it is more likely to overrule the better anti-discrimination laws of some states and territories (especially Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998).

 

It should be noted that these discriminatory provisions were not previously required with respect to divorced people remarrying – another issue on which there are strong religious beliefs. The fact they were introduced last year reveals they were motivated not by so-called ‘religious freedom’, but by homophobia and transphobia masked in that language.

 

By introducing new forms of discrimination, Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 delivered same-sex marriage, but it most definitely did not achieve marriage equality.[v]

 

  1. The majority of Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted for even more discrimination

 

Despite the fact the Smith Bill did not deliver equality to begin with, the majority of Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted in favour of at least some (and in some cases all) of the amendments that would have allowed even more discrimination against LGBTI couples.[vi] The only reason these were defeated was because all ALP and Greens MPs and Senators opposed them, alongside a small minority of Coalition parliamentarians.

 

These (thankfully rejected) amendments included granting individuals the right to discriminate in the provision of goods and services on the basis of their ‘religious marriage beliefs’, as well as personal views that same-sex relationships are wrong, or that trans people don’t exist.

 

The then-Attorney-General, George Brandis, even tried to incorporate Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights into the Marriage Act 1961 (through an amendment that ‘Nothing in this Act limits or derogates from the right of any person, in a lawful manner, to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching’) while conveniently ignoring the limitation in Article 18(3): that religious freedom can be limited to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others (including the right to non-discrimination). Oh, and he moved an amendment that all civil celebrants should be able to discriminate against LGBTI couples because of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.

 

It is offensive for Liberals to now claim credit for delivering marriage equality when the majority of them voted for it not to be equal.

 

Fun Fact: Our new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, voted for every amendment in the House of Representatives that sought to increase discrimination against LGBTI couples. This included supporting having two different definitions of marriage (one for ‘traditional marriage’ – the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life – and one for everybody else – the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life). He also introduced his own amendments to the Bill, which included protecting individuals who discriminate against others because of transphobic beliefs that ‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth’. He might now be Leader of the country, but with views like that he’ll never be a true leader.

 

  1. Even after the postal survey, a significant minority of Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted against same-sex marriage

 

The Liberal Party banned marriage equality in 2004. They voted against it in September 2012. They refused to hold a simple parliamentary vote following their election in 2013. They tried and failed to hold a plebiscite in 2016. They ‘succeeded’ in holding a postal survey in 2017, in which more than three-in-five Australians said yes to equality.

 

After forcing us wait for 13 years, and making us jump through hoops that no other group in Australia has ever had to before (and hopefully none will have to again), a significant minority of Liberal MPs and Senators still couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the ability of all couples to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

In the Senate, Liberals Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Eric Abetz and Slade Brockman, and Nationals John Williams, Matt Canavan and Barry O’Sullivan, voted no. While Liberal Senators Michaelia Cash, David Fawcett, James McGrath and Zed Seselja, and National Bridget McKenzie, all abstained.

 

In the House of Representatives, Liberal Russell Broadbent, and Nationals Keith Pitt and David Littleproud, voted no. Whereas Liberals (ex-PM) Tony Abbott, Andrew Hastie, Michael Sukkar, Kevin Andrews, (now-PM) Scott Morrison, Rick Wilson, Stuart Robert and Bert van Manen, and Nationals Barnaby Joyce and George Christensen, all abstained.

 

After subjecting LGBTI Australians to an unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and harmful postal survey because of their own internal political divisions, the fact that these 24 Liberal and National MPs could not even respect its outcome by voting yes in parliament shows the absolute contempt that they hold for us and our relationships. Their disgusting behaviour should not be forgiven nor forgotten.

 

**********

 

These ten points unequivocally demonstrate that same-sex marriage was achieved in Australia in spite of the Liberal Party, not because of them.

 

So, in the coming weeks, if any Liberal MP or Senator tries to claim credit for achieving marriage equality, tell them to get in the bin.

 

Because that is where such garbage claims belong.

 

Turnbull-on-QA

Former Prime Minister Turnbull on QandA, where he tried to claim credit for marriage equality. Hey Malcolm, Get in the Bin.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

 

Footnotes:

[i] Not that I was watching: I was not interested in hearing from the fakest of fake (self-declared) friends of the LGBTI community. This quote is from a transcript in CrikeyWorm.

[ii] Yes, this was done with the support of the then-Latham (!) Opposition, a move that also warrants criticism – but Labor will not be the ones falsely claiming credit for marriage equality in the coming weeks.

[iii] Of course, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard voted against equality, something for which she should be forever condemned.

[iv] Although trans and gender diverse people are still waiting for forced trans divorce laws to be repealed in some jurisdictions (noting that if they are not repealed by 9 December 2018 the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 will overrule them).

[v] There is a second, more technical, argument why the Liberal Party didn’t actually pass marriage equality. That is because the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 was a private members’ bill. It was not Government legislation, so its passage cannot be claimed as an achievement of the Liberal-National Government. Indeed, as a private members’ bill, more ALP MPs and Senators voted for it than Liberal and National ones.

[vi] This includes then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who voted for three different sets of amendments increasing discrimination against LGBTI couples, while abstaining on the others.

Ending Forced Trans Divorce: Mission Accomplished

It is now 18 months since the passage of legislation that finally allowed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people the right to marry under Australian law.

 

Well, most LGBTI people. Because it did not immediately overrule the laws of some Australian states and territories that prevent people who are married from changing their identity documentation to reflect their gender identity. In effect, making some trans and gender diverse people choose between the recognition of their relationship, and recognition of who they are.

 

Instead, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 gave states and territories 12 months in which to update relevant legislation to provide married people with the same opportunity to update their birth certificates as unmarried people.

 

At the end of this 12-month period, on 9 December 2018, the existing exemption under sub-section 40(5) the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was repealed:

 

Nothing in Division 2 renders it unlawful to refuse to make, issue or alter an official record of a person’s sex if a law of a State or Territory requires the refusal because the person is married.

 

So how did the states and territories respond?

 

First, there are two jurisdictions that had already abolished forced trans divorce prior to the passage of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act:

 

The Australian Capital Territory, where section 24(1) of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1997 does not make any distinction on the basis of whether a person is married or unmarried, and

 

South Australia, where sub-section 29I(3) of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 explicitly states that an application to change sex or gender identity ‘may be made under this section even if the person is married.’

 

There are four other jurisdictions that passed legislation within the 12 month time-frame granted to repeal forced trans divorce:

 

Victoria, where Parliament approved the Justice Legislation Amendment (Access to Justice) Act 2018 on 22 May. Among other things, this law repealed the requirement in section 30A of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 that a person be unmarried in order to apply to alter their details on the register, and

 

New South Wales, which passed the Miscellaneous Amendment (Marriages) Act 2018 in June. Similar to the Victorian Act, this legislation removes the requirement in sub-section 32B(1)(c) of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 that a person be unmarried in order to apply to alter the register to record change of sex.

 

Queensland, which also passed its Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Act 2018 in June, amending the requirement in section 22 of the original Act that a person be unmarried for their sexual reassignment to be noted on the Register, and

 

The Northern Territory, which passed the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2018 in late November, taking effect on 6 December with only three days to spare.

 

Which means that, at the time of the December 2018 deadline, two out of eight Australian states and territories had failed to repeal forced trans divorce:

 

Western Australia, where the Gender Reassignment Amendment Bill 2018 passed the Legislative Assembly in November 2018, but was not passed by the Legislative Council before the end of 2018. Update: The Legislative Council passed the Bill on Tuesday 12 February 2019, and

 

Tasmania, where the Justice and Related Legislation (Marriage Amendments) Bill 2018 – which makes a range of important amendments beyond simply repealing forced trans divorce – passed the Legislative Assembly in November 2018 despite Government opposition, and awaits consideration by their Legislative Council in March this year. Update: This Bill was passed by the Legislative Council in April 2019, and took effect in May 2019.

 

Of course, it is disappointing that it took another 17 months for trans and gender diverse Australians to gain access to marriage on the same terms of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

 

But it is still worthy of celebration that the abhorrent legal discrimination that was forced trans divorce has finally been made history.

 

Finally, this doesn’t mean the struggle for LGBTI equality in Australia is over – there is plenty left to do as part of the LGBTI agenda (see here).

 

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* This article was originally published in June 2018 as ‘Ending Forced Trans Divorce: Mission Half Accomplished’.