Marriage equality or marriage discrimination – a simple test

Based on media coverage over the past few days, it now seems possible that Commonwealth Parliament will – finally – hold a free vote in coming weeks on the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians to marry.

 

Of course, it is just as likely (perhaps even more likely) that the Turnbull Government will instead decide to hold a non-binding, voluntary postal vote on the subject, but that unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and downright offensive proposal is a subject for another day.

 

What I wanted to write about today is the kind of legislation that might ultimately be voted upon.

 

Because, amidst the understandable excitement of activists and advocates, the LGBTI community, our family members and friends, indeed all Australians who believe in fairness and the right of all people to marry the person they love, that progress might be imminent, we must not overlook a fundamental question:

 

Is it marriage equality, or is it marriage discrimination?

 

That is, does the Bill treat LGBTI-inclusive couples exactly the same as cisgender heterosexual couples, or will it introduce new special rights for civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to discriminate against us?

 

If it is the former, it is genuine marriage equality. If it is the latter, then it is something else, something lesser: marriage discrimination.

 

Unfortunately, based on multiple news reports it appears that the private member’s bill being drafted by Western Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith will include new ‘protections’ that provide celebrants with the right to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI couples.

 

Given religious celebrants already have this ability, presumably Senator Smith’s Bill will extend this ‘right to discriminate’ to (at least some) civil celebrants.

 

The argument that will inevitably be put forward to justify the differential treatment of couples under the Marriage Act 1961 is that it is necessary to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of the celebrants involved.

 

From my perspective, whether we should accept this argument, and indeed whether we should accept legislation that includes these types of ‘religious exceptions’, comes down to this simple test:

 

Will it treat LGBTI couples in the future differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to get (re-)married today?

 

Now, I admit this might seem to be a somewhat strange comparator, so please allow me to explain.

 

There is a wide range of religious beliefs about the rite of marriage, from groups who believe in marriage between more than two people, to others who do not believe in marriage between people of different faiths.

 

One of the more common religious beliefs about marriage, and indeed still the official position of what is the second-largest religious group in Australia (the Catholic Church, after ‘No religion’), is that divorce is a sin, and consequently people who have divorced should not be allowed to re-marry.

 

The Marriage Act currently allows churches, and religious celebrants, the ability to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of couples where one or both parties have already been divorced.

 

However, despite the fact some civil celebrants are Catholic themselves (and therefore may have some qualms about second, third or even fourth marriages), there is no equivalent right for civil celebrants to decline to perform these weddings.

 

And that seems like a reasonable distinction to make – because civil ceremonies under the Marriage Act are secular, rather than religious, in nature, there is no need to provide civil celebrants with the right to reject divorced people on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.

 

But, if it is not deemed essential to protect ‘religious freedom’ by allowing civil celebrants to discriminate on the basis of marital or relationship status now, then it should not be necessary to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the future.

 

Indeed, by comparing the rights of divorced people seeking to re-marry today with the rights of LGBTI couples under any future legislation that seeks to permit all couples to marry, it becomes clear that:

 

Amendments that provide civil celebrants with the ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples are not based on protecting ‘religious freedom’, but instead are legislating a right to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

As a result, any legislation that allows LGBTI Australians to get married, but does so on the condition that civil celebrants are able to turn them away because of their personal prejudices, is not marriage equality, it is marriage discrimination.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill that was released by the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, during the debate on the (traditional) plebiscite way back in October 2016 clearly failed on this front.

 

Not only did it significantly expand the right of civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, it also clarified that defence force chaplains (who are public servants) could reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It even allowed for-profit businesses, run by religious organisations on a commercial basis, to turn LGBTI couples away.

 

For all of these reasons, the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill was Unacceptable.

 

It is possible that Senator Smith and others have ‘learned’ from that experience, and that his private member’s bill will look significantly different to the Brandis Bill on the surface. The new ‘protections’ may not even explicitly target LGBTI couples, and instead be couched in more neutral terms.

 

But the real question will be how it treats LGBTI people in its substance. Irrespective of the wording used, if the legislation allows civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to treat LGBTI couples differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to re-marry today, it is simply homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in a pretty wedding dress (or tuxedo).

 

And so, by all means get excited by the possibility that the interminable debate about the right of LGBTI couples to marry in Australia might soon be over. But we should also be on guard against any proposals that provide civil celebrants and others with the ‘right to discriminate’ against us.

 

We’ve waited long enough for genuine marriage equality. We shouldn’t settle, or be forced to settle, for marriage discrimination.

 

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We should hold off on cutting the celebratory wedding cakes until we know exactly what is in the substance of any Bill, including any religious exceptions it may contain.

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If we want genuine marriage equality, we’re going to have to fight – & write – for it

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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:

  1. 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:
  1. 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:
  1. 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…

equalmeansequal-3

Footnotes:

[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.

Response from Gillian Triggs re Responsibility for LGBTI Issues at the Australian Human Rights Commission

In July, I wrote about the need for a full-time Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Issues at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)[i].

This was in part a response to the actions of Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, who, while serving as the AHRC spokesperson for SOGII issues, was arguing for the introduction of new rights to discriminate, including against LGBTI couples, as part of any reform to marriage laws[ii].

However, more broadly, it was a reflection of the overall need for the Commission to devote more resources to addressing issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia across Australian society.

As part of that post, I wrote to the President of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, calling on her to reallocate responsibility for LGBTI issues to a Commissioner other than Mr Wilson. In September, I received the following response from Ms Triggs:

“21 September 2015

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your letter to me regarding the responsibility for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Human Rights at the Commission.

The Australian Human Rights Commission comprises the President and 5 Commissioners. As President, I am responsible for all functions of the Commission. However, each Commissioner has a specific portfolio for which they are individually responsible.

I asked Tim Wilson to be the spokesperson on SOGII human rights. However, I and the other Commissioners also contribute public comment on the SOGII portfolio.

Under our statutory mandate at the Commission also has several functions that address the SOGII brief.

  1. We accept and try to resolve by conciliation individual complaints of discrimination and human rights under the four major pieces of legislation. No complaint under these acts can go to a court, unless and until the matter has been considered by the Commission.
  1. We intervene in court proceedings that involve human rights issues and we examine laws relating to certain rights and often propose improvements to those laws.
  1. We conduct national inquiries to bring special attention to issues of concern.
  1. We provide education about human rights to improve awareness, understanding and respect for rights in our community – in particular, the Commission is contributes to the inclusion of human rights education in the development of the National Schools Curriculum and works with the Safe Schools Coalition Australia.
  1. We conduct research and propose new policy and standards which promote the enjoyment of human rights.

The latest example of this is the Resilient individuals: sexual orientation, gender identity & Intersex rights national consultation report, a copy of which I have included in this letter.

The aim of the project was to consult stakeholders to identify key issues that can inform the Commission’s future work on SOGII issues. From June 2014 to January 2015 Cr Tim Wilson travelled nationally to consult lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender stakeholders in face to face meetings. In addition, over 1550 people participated in an online survey, and over 30 written submissions were received.

While each Commissioner is free to adopt an individual approach to the SOGII portfolio, the Australian Human Right Commission maintains a unified policy in ensuring human rights apply equally to LGBTI stakeholders.

I hope that this description of the contribution to SOGII matters is helpful.

Best wishes,

Gillian Triggs

President”

[NB Typographical errors in original]

In my view, this letter is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Mr Wilson, or the job that he is doing on LGBTI issues. While it notes the Resilient individuals process and report, led by Mr Wilson, it also makes clear that “I [Gillian Triggs] and the other Commissioners also contribute public comment on the SOGII portfolio” and that “the Australian Human Rights Commission maintains a unified policy in ensuring human rights apply equally to LGBTI stakeholders.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer the question of whether Ms Triggs and the AHRC are unified in support of the introduction of new rights to discriminate as part of the implementation of marriage equality, something that Mr Wilson advocated for, yet again, last week in the Sydney Morning Herald.[iii]

Nor does it overcome the problem of the AHRC spokesperson on SOGII human rights prioritising the expansion of religious freedoms, including through convening his ‘religious freedom roundtable’ (with the first meeting to be held next Thursday, 5 November 2015), something which usually results in the diminution of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.[iv]

However, it appears that these issues aren’t going to be resolved any time soon and, in fact, they may only be conclusively resolved when either the Turnbull Liberal-National Government, or a subsequent Labor Government, finally creates and provides funding for a stand-alone LGBTI Commissioner within the AHRC. Based on the agenda currently being pursued by Mr Wilson, in my opinion that day can’t come soon enough.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs

[i] “Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission” July 12, 2015: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/12/why-we-need-a-full-time-lgbti-commissioner-at-the-australian-human-rights-commission/

[ii] “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible” The Australian, 6 July 2015 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/religious-freedom-and-same-sex-marriage-need-not-be-incompatible/story-e6frg6zo-1227429558684

[iii] “Religious freedom isn’t a trump card, but it does need to be a part of marriage equality debate” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October, 2015 http://www.smh.com.au/comment/religious-freedom-isnt-a-trump-card-but-it-does-need-to-be-a-part-of-marriage-equality-debate-20151020-gkecyn.html

[iv] For more on this issue, see my “Submission on AHRC proposal to create a religious freedom roundtable” September 25, 2015: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/09/25/submission-on-ahrc-proposal-to-create-a-religious-freedom-roundtable/

Submission on AHRC Proposal to Create a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’

Mr Tim Wilson

Australian Human Rights Commissioner

C/- rights@humanrights.gov.au

Friday 25 September 2015

Dear Mr Wilson

Submission on Religious Freedom Roundtable Proposal

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on your proposal to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’, including on its draft ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles.’

From the outset, I would like to express my scepticism of the need for, and purpose of, this Roundtable.

While your call for submissions[i] at least briefly acknowledges the biggest problem in this area (“how to balance religious freedom with other human rights”), the remainder instead appears to focus on the ‘expansion’ of religious freedom, with the explicit goal of developing a body of policy work “that is designed to enlarge respect for religious freedom and proper consideration of its importance in future policy development and law reform.”[ii]

This is despite the fact that no clear need is articulated for such ‘enlargement’.

Indeed, as suggested by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in its recent Interim Report as part of its own Freedoms Inquiry:

“[g]enerally speaking, Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions. Australians enjoy the freedom to worship and practise religion, as well as the freedom not to worship or engage in religious practices.”[iii]

The ALRC went on to comment that:

“[t]here are few Commonwealth laws that can be said to interfere with freedom of religion. The Law Council of Australia advised that ‘it has not identified any laws imposing any specific restriction on the freedom of religion’ and ‘that any specific encroachment is likely to arise in balancing religious freedom with other protected freedoms, such as freedom of speech’.”[iv]

Indeed, it is difficult to think of many areas where religious freedoms are genuinely encroached upon, with the exception of the mistreatment of muslim Australians, by both Governments and other Australians, in the 14 years post September 11 (and it is difficult to see how this Roundtable would help address that issue), or the ongoing abuse of refugees fleeing religious persecution who are detained, processed and resettled on Nauru and Manus Island (although sadly there is nothing unique about this mistreatment, with all refugees who arrive by boat abused by Governments, of both persuasions, in this way).

On the other hand, it is easy to identify ways in which ‘religious freedom’ is currently exercised to discriminate against other Australians, and in this way cause significant harm to them and their rights.

The most obvious, and egregious, example of this is the extremely broad exceptions under most Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws that permit religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

In the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, these exceptions are contained in sections 23(3)(b), 37 and 38, with sub-section 37(1)(d) revealing exactly how broad this special right to discriminate is in practice:

“[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

In practice, this means that the Commonwealth Government tacitly endorses discrimination by religious organisations against gay teachers, lesbian students, bisexual people accessing health of community services and transgender aged care employees, among many others.

There are also a wide variety of more indirect ways in which ‘religious freedom’ has been used, and continues to be used, to oppress lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

This obviously includes ongoing advocacy by a number of mainstream christian churches, as well as by homophobic groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, to seek continued discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status through the secular Marriage Act 1961.

But it also includes things like campaigning to ensure the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum does not include content that is genuinely-inclusive of LGBTI students (thus denying their right to health information), or calling on Governments to abolish the national Safe Schools Coalition, a program with the explicit goal of reducing homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying.

For all of the above reasons, I call on you to reconsider the need to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’ and that, if you do, to amend the scope of such a Roundtable to ensure that its primary focus is on addressing the many ways in which ‘religious freedom’ is currently used as a weapon, by some elements within society, to legitimise homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination that is, and should be considered, unacceptable.

Before I turn to the ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles’ I would like to make two additional points about the information contained in the call for submissions.

First, in relation to the dot point “[p]reserving religious freedom when an organisation receives taxpayer’s money to provide a public service”, I would note that nearly all religious organisations receive taxpayer’s money through the generous exemptions from taxation law which they currently enjoy.

I would also note that this dot point appears to relate to the ‘carve-out’ to existing exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which has the effect of prohibiting discrimination by religious-operated aged care services against LGBT people accessing their services, where that service receives Commonwealth funding.[v]

In my view, this carve-out is not wide enough – there is no justification for these services to be legally permitted to discriminate against LGBT employees, either.

But, most importantly, from my perspective it is not the involvement of Government funding that means such discrimination should be prohibited – it is the fact that, employment and service provision in the public sphere, which includes the operation of aged care services, should be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. Full stop.

Second, in relation to the dot point “[b]alancing the right to religious freedom and equality before the law – what are the areas of shared agreement?” I note that the right not to be discriminated against (or ‘freedom from discrimination’), is in fact much broader than just ‘equality before the law’, which could be narrowly-construed as meaning equality under legislation and/or before the courts, rather than, say, equal access to employment or service provision.

Specific Comments Regarding the Draft Statement of purpose and Guiding principles[vi]

The ‘Statement of purpose’ describes the Religious Freedom Roundtable as a forum “for representatives of religious and spiritual communities to have ongoing engagement and dialogue about freedom of religion, conscience and belief (‘religious freedom’) and its interaction with public policy in 21st century Australia.”

Given the discussion above, and the fact that LGBTI Australians are the people most negatively affected by the exercise of ‘religious freedom’ in Australia, it seems odd to establish a roundtable to look at these issues and yet not have LGBTI organisations at the table.

This omission could be seen as indicating that the Religious Freedom Roundtable is in fact concerned with prioritising or ‘privileging’ the rights of religious organisations over and above the rights of other people, including those of LGBTI Australians.

Under the heading ‘Mutual respect’, in the first paragraph, you note that “[religious freedom] interacts with other fundamental freedoms including freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and association, as well as property rights.”

In response, I reiterate the position from my submission to last year’s Rights and Responsibilities Consultation that highlighting these rights, simply because they are ‘traditional’ or even just older, but omitting other rights such as the right to non-discrimination which in practice is just as important, is unjustified.[vii]

In short, “prioritising certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.”[viii]

Finally, I would like to make the following points in relation to specific ‘Guiding principles’:

Principle 1: Religious freedom is fundamental to the Australian way of life, and should be treated equally to all other human rights and freedoms.

and

Principle 2: Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that should be respected and not limited unless it infringes on the rights of others.

I agree with these statements, and particularly the observations that religious freedom should be ‘treated equally to all other human rights and freedoms’ and respected ‘unless it infringes on the rights of others’.

In practice, this should mean that the right to non-discrimination should be ‘treated equally’ to the right to religious freedom.

More importantly, it means that, given exceptions to anti-discrimination law allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT Australians in health, education, community services and aged care are clearly an infringement on the right to non-discrimination in public life, and that they cause significant harm to these people, such exceptions should be abolished.

Principle 3: Religious freedom has an essential and important role in our public life or civic affairs to contribute to the moral and spiritual guidance of our nation; and faith is as legitimate basis for participation in public life and civic affairs as any other.

I disagree with this statement for two reasons. First, as an atheist, and noting that Australia is a secular state, I reject the notion that ‘our nation’ as a whole necessarily requires ‘moral and spiritual guidance’ from organised religion.

Second, while people should not be prohibited from participation in public life on the basis of their religious beliefs, I do not believe it is appropriate for religious individuals and/or organisations to seek to impose ‘religious laws’ on their fellow citizens.

An example of this is the ongoing campaign by christian fundamentalists to impose a narrow religious interpretation of marriage on their fellow citizens through the secular Marriage Act 1961, in this way denying the human rights of those who do not share the same faith – and even of other christians who do not subscribe to their particular homophobic definition of this institution.

Thus, while participation in public life and civic affairs should be open, such participation should not be abused by using religion as a tool to oppress others.

Principle 6: No Australians should be unnecessarily excluded from participation in public life or civic affairs because of their faith, age, disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, or other irrelevant personal attribute.

While I agree with the underlying sentiment of this principle, I find it disappointing that, as both the ‘Freedom Commissioner’ and also the Commissioner with responsibility for LGBTI issues, you have not explicitly mentioned gender identity or intersex status as part of this principle. These two protected attributes from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be included.

Principle 8: When considering issues that affect the rights of others, it is necessary to provide equal opportunities to enlarge and consider their perspectives with the objective of accommodating and enlarging the human rights of all.

This principle appears to contradict the Statement of purpose, described above – specifically, given most contentious issues surrounding religious freedom in fact concern its intersection with the right to non-discrimination of LGBTI Australians, it is objectionable that LGBTI people and organisations are not included in this roundtable from the beginning.

Principle 10: Individuals and communities of faith will continue to constructively work with government and other public agencies to uphold the law and improve Australia’s moral and spiritual guidance.

As with principle 3, above, as an atheist I reject the implication that Australia, as a secular nation, necessarily requires ‘moral and spiritual guidance’ from organised religion.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide comments on your proposal to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’, including on its draft ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles.’

If you would like to clarify any of the above, or require further information, please contact me at the details below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/projects/religious-freedom-roundtable-call-submissions

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] ALRC, “Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report”, August 2015, para 4.1, page 97. See http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/alrc127

[iv] Ibid, para 4.39, page 104.

[v] Sub-section 37(2): Paragraph (1)(d) does not apply to an act or practice of a body established for religious purposes if: (a) the act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care; and (b) the act or practice is not connected with the employment of persons to provide that aged care.

[vi] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/DRAFT_ReligiousFreedomRoundtable_2015_AHRC_1.pdf

[vii] See my full submission here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[viii] Ibid.

Submission re Australian Law Reform Commission Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report

Australian Law Reform Commission

GPO Box 3708

SYDNEY NSW 2000

freedoms@alrc.gov.au

Monday 21 September 2015

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION RE ALRC FREEDOMS INQUIRY INTERIM REPORT

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report.

This submission builds on my submission in response to the Issues Paper released in December 2014[i].

As with my earlier submission, my primary focus is on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, including:

  • The failure by the Commonwealth Government to protect LGBTI people from vilification and
  • The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against LGBT people.

However, before I turn to these issues in detail – and specifically how they relate to Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the Interim Report – I reiterate my concern about the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry.

From my earlier submission:

“The way in which the Terms of Reference have been formulated, and consequently the manner in which the Issues Paper has been drafted, appears to prioritise some rights above others, merely because they are older, or are found in common law, rather than being more modern rights or founded through legislation or international human rights documents.

This is an unjustified distinction, and makes it appear, at the very least, that property rights or ‘the common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka protection against defamation) are more important than other rights, such as freedom from vilification or discrimination.

My criticism of this inquiry is therefore similar to that of the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper released by the Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson. From my submission to that inquiry[ii]:

“Specifically, I would argue that the prioritising of certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.

From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:

“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.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[iii]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.

Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia”… but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.”

[End extract]

Unfortunately, while the ALRC Freedoms Inquiry Issues Paper acknowledged that “[f]reedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right”, in my opinion the Interim Report does not reflect this view and in fact further privileges some rights over the right to non-discrimination simply because they are ‘older’ in legal origin.

Nevertheless, in the remainder of this submission I will continue to focus on the important right to non-discrimination, including associated protections against vilification, as it relates to the freedoms of speech, religion and association that are discussed in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 respectively.

Chapter 3: Freedom of Speech

My first comment relates to terminology, namely the protected attributes referred to in paragraph 3.103 on page 80.

It is disappointing that the discussion of protections against breaches of human rights and discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986) would refer to the out-dated term ‘sexual preference’, rather than the more inclusive and better practice term ‘sexual orientation’.

It is also disappointing that the two other grounds added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 – ‘gender identity’, and ‘intersex status’ – are not included in this paragraph.

Turning now to the more substantive issue of anti-vilification laws generally, and the issue of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 specifically (as discussed on pages 80 to 84).

Despite public controversy in recent years (at least in the eyes of some conservative commentators), I do not believe that there has been any real evidence that the racial vilification protections of the RDA have, in practice, operated inappropriately, or that they require significant amendment.

Moreover, rather than repeal Commonwealth racial vilification protections, I continue to believe there is a strong case for the introduction of similar laws against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

As I wrote in my earlier submission [edited]:

“My primary question is why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification, and therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians at Commonwealth level.

In short, if there should be a law to protect against the incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race, then there should also be a law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The fact that there is no such Commonwealth law means that the Government is currently failing in its duty to protect LGBTI Australians from vilification.”

[End extract]

Therefore, my response to the ‘[c]onclusions’ in paragraph 3.191 is to reject the suggestion that “[a]nti-discrimination law may also benefit from more thorough review in relation to implications for freedom of speech” but to instead submit that the Commonwealth Government should amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to include vilification protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, as a matter of priority.

Chapter 4: Freedom of Religion

It is difficult to disagree with the opening paragraph of Chapter 4, where it asserts: “[g]enerally speaking, Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions. Australians enjoy the freedom to worship and practise religion, as well as the freedom not to worship or engage in religious practices,” or this description in paragraph 4.39 on page 104:

“There are few Commonwealth laws that can be said to interfere with freedom of religion. The Law Council of Australia advised that “it has not identified any laws imposing any specific restriction on the freedom of religion” and “that any specific encroachment is likely to arise in balancing religious freedom with other protected freedoms, such as freedom of speech.””

In fact, I would go further to suggest that religious freedom is unnecessarily and unjustifiably prioritised, and provided with ‘special treatment’, within Australia.

This is because legal protections surrounding freedom of religion extend far beyond the right to worship freely (or not) to incorporate other ‘rights’, including the ‘right to discriminate’ against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This so-called ‘right to discriminate’ applies outside places and celebrations of worship, to allow education, health and community services that are operated by religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT Australians both in employment, and in service delivery.

This is reflected in the variety of extremely broad exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law, which provide that the requirement not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity does not apply to these organisations.

In the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, these exceptions are contained in sections 23(3)(b), 37 and 38, with sub-section 37(1)(d) revealing exactly how broad this freedom to discriminate is in practice:

“[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

It should be noted that there is nothing inherent in the freedom of religion that automatically requires religious organisations to be provided with what is essentially a ‘blank cheque’ to discriminate against LGBT employees and LGBT people accessing services in a wide variety of circumstances.

There are two reasons for this:

First, these services, whether they are in the fields of education, health or community services, are located squarely in the public sphere, and their primary nature is related to the delivery of education, health or community services, not to the ‘celebration’ of religion.

This means that, while discrimination against ministers of religion or worshippers within a church, mosque or synagogue on these grounds might conceptually fall within freedom of religion, it is much more difficult to argue that discrimination within a school, hospital or aged care facility is as essential to enjoyment of the same freedom.

Second, we accept that there are limits to religious freedom where it threatens public order, or causes significant harm to other people. It is clear that allowing religious organisations to discriminate freely in these settings causes considerable harm to LGBT Australians, including by:

a) Denying employment to people who are eminently qualified to perform a role, with this discrimination based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity, attributes which are irrelevant to the job at hand, and

b) Discriminating against people who wish to access services on the same basis, the most egregious example of which is mistreatment of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students whose parents have chosen to send to schools operated by religious organisations (and where they are often unaware that their child is LGBT).

For both of these reasons, I reiterate the view from my earlier submission that the exceptions offered to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law should be significantly curtailed.

As I wrote previously:

“Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I submit, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[iv], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, are both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. These are the only religious exemptions that, I believe, should be retained.

This, much narrower, form of religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.”

[End extract]

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Interim Report is the stakeholder feedback from some religious organisations, lobbyists and lobby groups that, contrary to the above view, their rights to discriminate are currently too narrowly defined and they in fact demand a far greater ability to impose discrimination against LGBT Australians.

This includes submissions from the Australian Christian Lobby, Mr Patrick Parkinson, Freedom for Faith, Family Voice, the Wilberforce Foundation, Christian Schools Australia and the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. Their suggestions include replacing the existing, already overly generous exceptions to anti-discrimination law, with a positively-framed ‘right to discriminate’.

These groups are essentially arguing that religious freedom, no matter how broadly defined or how indirectly related to the actual celebration of religion, must always take precedence over the rights of others not to be discriminated against, even where such discrimination obviously causes significant harm.

I urge the ALRC to reject the views of these religious fundamentalists, and their attempts to impose the ‘supremacy’[v] of religious freedom over any or all other rights in Australian society, including through Commonwealth law.

Finally, while on Chapter 4, I note the discussion regarding solemnising marriage ceremonies on pages 111 to 113 of the Interim Report.

While I do not propose to comment on the content which is included in this section, I would note that one issue which is not canvassed is the proposal by some that, when marriage equality is finally introduced in Australian law, it should be accompanied by the establishment of a new right for civil celebrants to refuse to solemnise wedding ceremonies of LGBTI Australians.

Such provisions have been included in the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, introduced by Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm, and similar rights to ‘conscientiously object’ have also been advocated for by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson.

For reasons that I have outlined elsewhere[vi], such provisions should be rejected by the Commonwealth Parliament on the basis that this would set a concerning precedent whereby individuals would be able to discriminate in service delivery on the basis of their personal religious beliefs, and because a social reform which is based on love would be fundamentally undermined by provisions which legitimise hate.

Chapter 5: Freedom of Association

The issues which arise in this Chapter are similar to those raised in Chapter 4: Freedom of Religion. In particular, people like Mr Patrick Parkinson and Family Voice submit that freedom of association should allow religious organisations to discriminate against people who do not “fit with the mission and values of the organisation.”

To a certain extent I agree – churches, mosques and synagogues, indeed all formally and explicitly religious organisations, should be free to include or exclude whoever they want, on whatever basis they want, as ministers of religion and as worshippers or members of their respective congregations.

The ‘whoever they want, on whatever basis they want’ formulation is important – if the people making the case for freedom of religion, and freedom of association, to justify exempting religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws are philosophically consistent, they should be pushing for exceptions to be introduced into the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and other anti-discrimination schemes as much as they argue for the existing exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

If they do not, then it reveals that they are not genuinely motivated by the pursuit of these freedoms, but are in fact engaged in an exercise in prejudice specifically directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In a similar way to Chapter 4, I also disagree that the freedom of association should extend to allow education, health and community services operated by religious organisations to be able to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Any argument that might be raised that these schools, hospitals or aged care facility should have the freedom to include or exclude ‘whoever they want, on whatever basis they want’ is outweighed by the public interest in having education, health and community services provided on a non-discriminatory basis, and specifically by the harm caused to LGBT people by allowing such discrimination to occur.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to the Interim Report. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details below, should you wish to clarify any of the above or to seek additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[i] https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/02/15/submission-to-australian-law-reform-commission-traditional-rights-and-freedoms-inquiry/

[ii] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[iii] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.

[iv] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

[v] Indeed, it is especially concerning that the Australian Christian Lobby uses the language of ‘supremacy’ in its own submission: “Courts and legislatures need to acknowledge the supremacy of the fundamental rights of freedom of religion, conscience, speech and association… [it is] a freedom which must be placed among the top levels of human rights hierarchy” as quoted at paragraph 4.96 on page 116.

[vi] See: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/21/senator-leyonhjelms-marriage-equality-bill-undermines-the-principle-of-lgbti-anti-discrimination-should-we-still-support-it/