Why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants

The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).

 

The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.

 

That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]

 

I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

 

I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:

 

  1. Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.

 

  1. The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.

 

  1. Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.

 

Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):

 

  1. Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).

 

  1. If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.

 

  1. Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.

 

For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

**********

 

It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’

 

The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).

 

But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.

 

To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?

 

Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?

 

Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?

 

The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.

 

The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.

 

In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.

 

Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:

“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or

(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or

(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:

(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and

(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”

 

No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.

 

They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.

 

If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).

 

**********

 

One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.

 

I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.

 

George Brandis 25

Attorney-General George Brandis, who is proposing religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”

How Dare You

I‘ve been writing this blog for more than five years. In that time, I have tried to stick to a few guiding principles in what I publish:

 

  1. To be factually accurate, and to correct the record as quickly as possible where I do (occasionally) make a mistake. Because there’s not much point in having an uninformed debate.
  2. To only divulge as much personal information as is relevant to the topic at hand, and to try to respect the privacy of my fiancé Steven (although sometimes, as with our appearance on The Drum this week, there is a compelling reason to share our story).
  3. To try not to write, or post, while angry.

 

Today, I’m breaking rule number three. To put it bluntly, I’m mad as hell, and not in an amusing, Shaun Micallef kind of way.

 

The source of my frustration? The fact that, in the same week the overwhelming majority of Australians voted for marriage equality, some Commonwealth Parliamentarians have decided to undermine that same equality by pushing for new special privileges to discriminate against us.

 

Those arguing for something less than full equality include Attorney-General George Brandis, who has already indicated he will move multiple amendments to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill) which, as we have seen, is itself an unsatisfactory compromise.

 

Senator Brandis’ proposals include providing all civil celebrants with the ability to reject couples on the basis of their personal religious or ‘conscientious’ beliefs – despite the fact civil celebrants are performing a secular function delegated by the state.

 

He is also suggesting a provision to state that “nothing in the bill makes it unlawful for people to hold and to express the views of their own religion on marriage.” Which sounds fairly innocuous, but when we eventually see the detail could include an attempt to override state and territory anti-vilification laws.

 

James Paterson

Liberal Senator James Paterson.

 

Then of course there is Senator James Paterson who, on Monday, released his own draft legislation that sought to grant special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI people in a wide variety of circumstances, including allowing commercial businesses to deny goods and services to same-sex weddings.

 

Thankfully, his legislation won’t ultimately be introduced, but he and others are likely to move the majority of its measures as amendments to the Smith Bill.

 

Perhaps the most egregious of these is the concerted push to include, within the Marriage Act itself, a ‘right’ for parents to withdraw their children from any class with which they disagree on the basis of their religious beliefs. This move, reportedly supported by Senators David Fawcett and Zed Seselja, as well as MPs Scott Morrison and Andrew Hastie, is a naked attack on the Safe Schools program.

 

In the words of Peter Dutton: “I want to make sure that proper parental protections are in place… Because I do think this Safe Schools movement will use this debate as a launching pad for their next wave.”

 

It could even extend to parents withdrawing their children from any and all sex education lessons, or Health and Physical Education generally – basically, any class that might teach students the incontrovertible fact that LGBTI people exist, and that we are normal.

 

If you’re struggling to figure out how parents withdrawing children from Safe Schools lessons has anything to do with marriage equality, you’re not alone. Because they are completely unrelated issues, deliberately conflated by the ‘No’ campaign during the postal survey, and again now by conservative MPs.

 

**********

 

It is not difficult to legislate for marriage equality: to amend the definition to be the union of 2 people, and recognise the marriages of LGBTI couples that already exist. That is all that is required to implement the equal treatment of LGBTI relationships – nothing more and nothing less.

 

Instead, we are seeing some Liberal and National politicians using this debate to try to add to, rather than subtract from, anti-LGBTI discrimination, to fight an unrelated ‘culture war’ rather than do the one thing 7,817,247 people voted for: pass marriage equality.

 

My message to Senators Brandis, Fawcett, Seselja and Paterson, MPs Morrison, Dutton and Hastie, and anyone else who is contemplating amendments that have the practical impact of discriminating against LGBTI people and our relationships:

 

How dare you.

 

How dare you hold a 3 month, $100 million non-binding postal survey on the worth of our relationships, and of our lives, in the first place.

 

How dare you decide, when your unnecessary, wasteful and harmful process is finally over and the overwhelming majority of Australians have voted for marriage equality, to offer us something that falls far short of that standard.

 

How dare you attempt to change existing laws so that civil celebrants, who are performing a secular function delegated by the state, can simply say ‘no gays allowed’ on the basis of nothing more than their personal beliefs.

 

How dare you use this debate to attack Safe Schools, and inclusion programs for LGBTI students more generally, so that young people are denied the right to learn that who they are and who they love is okay.

 

How dare you amend legislation that would finally give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians equal recognition under the law by taking away our rights in other areas, including anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections.

 

How dare you place any terms or conditions on the right of LGBTI couples to get married in the (hopefully near) future that do not currently exist for cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

How dare you vote to ensure that your own weddings and marriages are treated any differently to, or better than, my wedding and marriage to my fiancé Steven.

 

Seriously, how dare you.

 

**********

 

I thought long and hard before writing this post, and then again before deciding to publish it. There is obviously a risk that, in doing so, I could simply be dismissed as an ‘angry gay’ (which is usually very far from the truth).

 

But then I realised I can live with that description. Particularly because there is a much greater risk: that, after coming so far since the Howard Government first banned marriage equality way back in August 2004, after fighting so hard, and overcoming every obstacle placed in our way – including the unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey – we are denied true marriage equality at the final hurdle.

 

That is what is at stake in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year, starting Monday 27 November: full equality, or something that falls short, potentially by a long distance.

 

I don’t want to think back on this moment and realise that we could have achieved something wonderful, but instead ended up with something flawed.

 

So, if you believe in genuine marriage equality like I do, if you think that LGBTI relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as cisgender heterosexual couples are today, then it’s time to get active.

 

Please write to MPs and Senators who support marriage equality and let them know that there should be No compromise on equality.

 

If you can, call the office of your local MP to reinforce that message. Tweet, share, and do everything you can to make sure your voice is heard at this critical point.

 

This is the best opportunity for our relationships to be treated equally under the law. Don’t let some conservative MPs and Senators take that right, your right, away.

Bill Shorten, It’s time to honour your commitment on marriage equality

The following is my open letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, ahead of the announcement of the postal survey result this Wednesday (15 November) and likely subsequent parliamentary consideration of marriage equality legislation:

 

**********

 

On 31 March 2016, you attended a panel event called ‘Why Knot?’ in Redfern, co-hosted by the Guardian Australia and Australian Marriage Equality.

 

At the end of that forum, during the Q&A session, I asked you the following question:

 

“There is a real risk that, when Malcolm Turnbull finally gets around to drafting it, his Marriage Amendment Bill will seek to include new special rights for civil celebrants and other wedding business-providers to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Just to get it on the record: Mr Shorten, will you commit the Labor Party to voting against any attempts to expand religious exceptions beyond existing provisions and, if they do somehow end up being passed and polluting the Marriage Act, will you seek to repeal them at the earliest available opportunity?”[i]

 

Your answer: “Yes, and yes.”

 

As reported by the Guardian, you went on to state: “It’s not allowed under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”

 

You were right then.

 

You were right because this reform, marriage equality, is about removing discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. One form of discrimination should not simply be replaced by another.

 

You were right because protections for ‘religious freedom’ that are only introduced when LGBTI couples might finally have the opportunity to wed should be seen for what they are: attempts to legitimise homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

You were right because the vast majority of LGBTIQ Australians do not want our long desired, long fought for and long overdue equal right to marry undermined by new special privileges to discriminate against us – with research at the start of 2017 confirming that:

 

“81% of the 6,352 LGBTIQ adult Australians taking part in this survey were strongly opposed to potential new laws making it legal for individuals and organisations to refuse their services to same-sex couples, based on personal conscience or religious belief.”

 

And you were right because four-in-five Australians agree, with a poll earlier this month reporting that:

 

“In response to the question, ‘If the majority vote ‘yes’ in the postal survey, should same-sex couples be treated the same under the law compared with other couples?’, 78% of respondents said yes. This figure consisted of 98% of respondents who said they had voted ‘yes’, and also 43% of those who said they had voted ‘no’.”

 

You were right then. Are you still right now? Specifically, will you, and the Labor Party, do the right thing when marriage equality legislation is likely considered by Commonwealth Parliament in the coming weeks and months?

 

I ask this question because I am extremely disappointed by reports that the Labor Caucus has already decided to support Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, describing it as an ‘acceptable compromise’.

 

This is despite the fact his draft legislation:

 

  • Permits existing civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples by nominating to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’ based on nothing more than their personal beliefs [section 39DD(2)], and
  • Unnecessarily duplicates exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act itself, allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away LGBTI couples [section 47B].

 

Both of these provisions appear to be matters you either explicitly or implicitly rejected in your answer at that forum in Redfern just over 19 months ago.

 

I urge you to reconsider your, and your Party’s, position on the Smith Bill, not just because of your previous commitment to me and to that audience, but also because of the principle that marriage equality should be exactly that: equal. The weddings of LGBTI Australians, when they are finally made legal, must not be subject to any extra terms and conditions than those that already exist.

 

At the very least, I believe you should develop amendments to remove both of the above provisions from the Smith Bill prior to its potential passage.

 

I am sure you are also aware of reports that conservatives within the Liberal and National Parties are busy preparing their own amendments to the Smith Bill that would extend discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people across a wide range of areas of public life.

 

It is incumbent upon you, and every member of the parliamentary Labor Party, to vote against every amendment that seeks to perpetuate the second-class treatment of LGBTI Australians, our relationships and our families.

 

In this context, the debate around marriage equality legislation will be an opportunity for you to show, once again, the leadership on this issue that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will not.

 

You stood with the LGBTI community against the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite in October 2016.

 

You stood with the LGBTI community again, earlier this year, against the equally unnecessary, wasteful and divisive (and arguably illegitimate) postal survey.

 

When the survey went ahead, you stood with the LGBTI community a third time by campaigning to help win the public vote.

 

Please stand with us now by voting to ensure any Bill that is passed represents genuine marriage equality, not just same-sex marriage subject to additional discrimination.

 

It’s time to honour your commitment, to me, to LGBTI Australians, and to every person who has voted Yes to the equal treatment of equal love.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

Bill Shorten Commitment

Will Opposition Leader Bill Shorten support genuine marriage equality?

Footnotes:

[i] I recorded the question shortly thereafter – and published it in April 2016 in the following article: In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions.

The push for new exceptions in the Marriage Act is homophobic. Here’s why.

Voting in the same-sex marriage postal survey has now closed. Based on the widely-held assumption that the majority of Australians have voted Yes, discussion has now turned to what amendments will be made to the Marriage Act to implement this outcome.

 

Conservatives who have opposed marriage equality throughout this process, including the Australian Christian Lobby and many Liberal and National Party MPs and Senators, are now arguing that any change to the law must include new exceptions providing a broad range of special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

As WA Liberal MP Ian Goodenough has publicly acknowledged: “[t]he focus will be in the area of preserving parental rights, freedom of speech, and institutional considerations such as curriculum in schools, access to reproductive technology, correctional facilities, etc…”

 

This is on top of those new exceptions already included in Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedom) Bill 2017, which, as I have written elsewhere, would:

 

  • Permit existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’ so they can avoid marrying LGBTI couples,
  • Duplicate exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act itself, allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away LGBTI couples, and
  • Reinforce the ability of military chaplains, who are public servants, paid for with taxpayers’ money, to refuse to perform the marriage ceremonies of LGBTI personnel serving within the ADF.[i]

 

The supposed justification for these new exceptions? That they are essential to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of people who object to marriage equality on the basis of their personal faith.

 

Which is, to put it bluntly, bollocks.

 

The coordinated campaign for new exceptions in the Marriage Act has very little to do with ‘religious freedom’. This push is primarily, almost exclusively, about legitimising homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

This motivation can be seen through one simple comparison – how the Marriage Act has treated divorced couples remarrying over the past four decades versus how conservatives are proposing LGBTI couples should be treated now.

 

After all, there are a variety of religious beliefs about divorce and remarriage, just as there is a range of religious perspectives about marriage equality. The single largest religious organisation in Australia – the Catholic Church – remains staunchly opposed to both. Other faith groups support both.

 

So, if there are individuals and groups with strong views about, specifically against, divorce and remarriage, surely the Marriage Act will already contain special privileges allowing discrimination against people having second, or subsequent, weddings?

 

Well, no actually.

 

Even following the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce as part of the Family Law Act reforms in 1975, the Marriage Act was not amended to provide civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against people remarrying. Nor were military chaplains given ‘strengthened’ powers to refuse to perform the marriage ceremonies of ADF personnel tying the knot for the second time.

 

The inconsistent treatment of divorced people remarrying and LGBTI couples is demonstrated even more powerfully by considering the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

 

As well as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, from its very beginning this legislation has protected people against discrimination on the basis of their ‘marital status’, an attribute that was originally defined as:

 

“the status or condition of being-

(a) single;

(b) married;

(c) married but living separately and apart from one’s spouse;

(d) divorced;

(e) widowed; or

(f) the de facto spouse of another person…” [emphasis added].

 

Discrimination on the basis of ‘marital or relationship status’ remains prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act today.

 

Which means that, for 33 years, the Marriage Act has happily coexisted with legislation that prohibits discrimination against divorced people remarrying – including discrimination by civil celebrants.

 

For 33 years, there has apparently not been a need to duplicate exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away couples wishing to remarry.

 

For 33 years, there has been no massive campaign to ‘preserve parental rights, freedom of speech, and institutional considerations such as curriculum in schools’ about divorce and remarriage.

 

At no point during this time, not when marriage equality was originally banned by the Howard Government in August 2004, or even when the same Government had a majority in both houses of parliament between 2005 and 2007, has there been a concerted push to amend the Marriage Act to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of people who object to divorce and remarriage on the basis of their personal faith.

 

So, why now? If it was not necessary to protect ‘religious freedom’ following the introduction of no fault divorce more than four decades ago, nor at any point since the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of marital status more than three decades ago, why is it suddenly necessary to defend ‘religious freedom’ today?

 

The logical conclusion – in my view, the only possible conclusion – is that the changes being put forward, in Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill, and by others like his Coalition colleague Ian Goodenough, are not actually about religious freedom at all.

 

If these amendments are only being put forward now that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians might finally have the opportunity to legally marry, then their intended purpose appears to be: to legitimise discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

These provisions are inherently homophobic. And biphobic. And transphobic, too.

 

People arguing for ever-widening exceptions in the Marriage Act can dress their proposals up in all the fine language they want. But they cannot hide the naked truth: such amendments are just homophobia in a fancy frock.

 

It is simply not good enough for the long desired, long fought for, and long overdue introduction of marriage equality to be undermined by the inclusion of religious exceptions that will, in practice, perpetuate discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Equal should mean equal – and that means LGBTI couples marrying in the future should be treated exactly the same as divorced people remarrying are now.

 

Goodenough

Liberal MP Ian Goodenough, whose proposed amendments to the Marriage Act are definitely not good enough for LGBTI Australians.

 

Footnotes:

[i] It should be noted that Smith’s Bill also permits increased, or strengthened, discrimination against other groups, including divorced people remarrying. This is to avoid criticisms of Senator Brandis’ 2016 Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, which explicitly discriminated against same-sex couples. It is unlikely that many divorced Australians understand they could theoretically be discriminated against as a result of the Smith Bill. Then again, they probably shouldn’t worry too much – the timing of the introduction of these amendments, and the public debate surrounding them, confirm that LGBTI Australians are the real target.

What. A. Waste.

Today is the last day of ‘voting’ in the same-sex marriage postal survey. By 6pm tonight, the last ballot will have been received by the ABS, and the last online vote will have been cast.

 

Even though it will be another eight days before we learn the final result, now is an opportune time to reflect on this pseudo plebiscite, and all I can think is:

 

What.

A.

Waste.

 

What a waste of time. It is three months since the Turnbull Government announced the postal survey, and two months since voting started, with intense campaigning throughout by both sides – all on an issue that could, and should, have been resolved by Commonwealth Parliament in a week. Or even less.

 

What a waste of money. Prime Minister Turnbull has spent $122 million of public money, of your money, to outsource responsibility to you to answer the question of whether same-sex couples should be treated equally under secular law. And he has done so just to avoid internal division within the Coalition.

 

Of course, if the Australian public votes Yes, the issue will still have to return to be voted upon by Commonwealth Parliament – which is pretty much the definition of unnecessary duplication.

 

Oh, and that’s not even counting the money wasted on the campaign itself, including the $1 million donation by the Anglican Church of Sydney to oppose the equal rights of LGBTI Australians. Imagine how many disadvantaged people could have been helped by that money?

 

What a waste of effort. Thousands of volunteers have knocked on tens of thousands of doors, made hundreds of thousands of phone calls, and had millions of conversations, to encourage people to vote Yes to marriage equality.

 

That effort is not wasted as in useless – I am sure it has helped to ensure the ‘right’ side wins. But it is wasted in that none of it was needed. If ever there was a straight-forward issue of public policy – where the lives of one group of people could be improved, with nobody else adversely affected – then surely it is the question of marriage equality. It should have been resolved years ago.

 

What a waste of priorities. One of the most frustrating aspects of the past three months has been the fact that debate around the same-sex marriage postal survey has taken focus away from other important issues, including how to best advance the Uluru Statement from the Heart and efforts to stop the ongoing human rights abuses of people seeking asylum on Manus Island and Nauru.

 

Even within the LGBTI community, there are many, many other issues that could benefit from the attention currently devoted to marriage equality, including ending involuntary surgeries on intersex infants, improving trans access to identity documentation, and improving the treatment of LGBTI people seeking asylum.

 

What a waste of unity. One of the weakest arguments put forward by the Turnbull Government for its plebiscite was that, if the answer is Yes, it will be a unifying moment for our country. One where the ‘losing’ side would accept the legitimacy of the result and everyone would move on.

 

Instead, it has turned out exactly as everyone else expected – the campaign has stirred up hatred and intolerance, while more people will end the campaign with entrenched views than at the start. Neither side will give up if the result is not the one they were after.

 

The alternative? A parliamentary vote where marriage equality could have been passed quickly and without controversy, where people who feared change had the opportunity to see it become law, and to learn that the sky didn’t fall.

 

You know, like New Zealand.

 

Marriage equality in Australia could have looked like this:

 

 

 

Instead, Malcolm Turnbull held a postal survey that looked more like this:

 

What a waste 2

 

What a waste of our democratic traditions. The decision by the Liberal and National Parties to hold an optional, non-binding, nation-wide public opinion poll on marriage equality has set a terrible precedent for how issues of public policy are decided in this country.

 

These parties, who claim to be ‘conservative’, have made a radical change to our system of government. Already there is pressure to hold plebiscites on all manner of issues, including euthanasia or even the death penalty. It is difficult for the Coalition to resist these calls in the future on the basis of how it has approached same-sex marriage.

 

What a waste of Malcolm Turnbull’s credibility. Okay, granted, there wasn’t much left by the time he announced the postal survey in August to get around the fact the Senate had rejected his preferred plebiscite.

 

But remember there was a time, in September 2015, when the population was briefly hopeful that Turnbull would be a much more modern, and progressive, leader than the man he replaced. A large part of that hope was founded on Turnbull’s supposed support for marriage equality.

 

The fact he has systematically sold out LGBTI Australians on this issue, including subjecting us to this absolute farce of a process, is a significant contributing factor to why he has so little credibility just over two years later.

 

What a waste in terms of the negative impact on the LGBTI community itself. The biggest waste, and the worst outcome, of the postal survey has been the harm that it has caused to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, to rainbow families and to their children.

 

The tears that have been shed.

 

The worst fears that have been, sadly, realised.

 

The depression it has caused, or exacerbated.

 

The family divisions it has worsened.

 

The homophobic, transphobic and biphobic abuse it has triggered.

 

The violence that has been endured by too many.

 

All of this was completely unnecessary. All of this was completely foreseen by everyone – outside the Australian Christian Lobby, and the Liberal-National Government. All of this was their fault. We will never forgive, nor forget, what they put us through.

 

Turnbull closed eyes

Malcolm Turnbull has closed his eyes to the damage his postal survey has caused.

 

As I write this, it seems highly likely that on 15 November the ABS will announce the Yes vote was ‘successful’ in the postal survey. Same-sex marriage will probably, although not certainly, be legalised in the months that follow (whether it is genuine marriage equality remains to be seen).

 

But even if this process results in marriage equality finally being introduced, nothing will ever justify what LGBTI Australians have been subjected to over the past three months. Because nothing ever could. What a waste.

Wedding Dates and Mandates

Centennial-Park heart

Centennial Park, Sydney.

 

A couple of weeks ago, my fiancé Steven and I were walking around Centennial Park in Sydney when we started discussing possible wedding dates.

 

That shouldn’t be remarkable: an engaged couple talking about the timing of their nuptials. Except it was probably the first time in about five years that we seriously considered when and where we might hold our ceremony.

 

The previous conversation coincided with the last proper vote on marriage equality in Commonwealth Parliament – way back in September 2012. But now, with the same-sex marriage postal survey drawing to a close, there is a real prospect that marriage equality might finally become law in the months ahead.

 

Of course, there are some major hurdles still to overcome before Steven and I start booking venues and sending out save-the-date cards.

 

The first, and most obvious, hurdle is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics must announce a majority Yes result at 10am on Wednesday 15 November, just ten days from now.

 

Assuming that outcome is favourable, the second hurdle is for our 226 parliamentarians to pass legislation to respect the wishes of the Australian population.

 

That part should be relatively straight-forward – amending the Marriage Act to make the definition of marriage inclusive of LGBTI couples, and to recognise the marriages of thousands of couples that already exist.

 

But it is highly likely the debate around what should be included in, and excluded from, a marriage equality bill will be just as divisive as the postal survey that preceded it, if not more so.

 

That is because the same groups who have steadfastly opposed the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships, including the Australian Christian Lobby and conservatives within the Coalition, are now arguing that any bill to introduce marriage equality must be weighed down by new special privileges allowing discrimination against us across multiple spheres of public life.

 

As reported by news.com.au these changes: “could include lessening hate speech laws, axing legislation that gives same-sex parents the same rights as straight parents, barring gay couples from accessing IVF and allowing parents to remove kids from any school lesson that even fleetingly mentions gay people. There is also the prospect of businesses being given the green light to refuse to serve anyone who is gay, not just those organising same-sex weddings.”

 

The introduction of such amendments would fundamentally alter the purpose of the legislation being debated. It would no longer be a marriage equality bill, it would instead be a bill to promote discrimination against LGBTI Australians, where expanding the right to marry would be purely incidental.

 

Obviously, these changes must be resisted, and resisted strongly, which means it will once again fall to LGBTI Australians, and our allies, to argue for the equal treatment of our relationships.

 

Once again, we have the arguments on our side. From the principle that secular law should not discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics, to the ideal of a fair go which means one form of discrimination should not simply be replaced by another.

 

We must also highlight the inconsistency of those claiming these rights to discriminate are necessary to protect ‘religious freedom’ – if they have not historically been required to allow discrimination against divorced couples remarrying, they are not necessary to permit discrimination against same-sex couples now.

 

But there is another argument against the introduction of these new special privileges to discriminate that I would like to talk about, and that is the theory of political mandates (I know, I know, this is far less romantic than discussing possible wedding dates, but please hear me out).

 

For those who don’t know, a mandate is defined as ‘the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate.’

 

In this case, the Australian electorate has just participated in a $122 million, three month long, nation-wide postal survey to determine whether it supports same-sex marriage. If the result is Yes, as is widely-expected, what does that mean for the ‘mandate’ of the Government, and the Parliament more broadly?

 

  1. There is a mandate for same-sex marriage

 

The first, and least controversial, outcome is that, if the population has voted yes, there is a clear mandate for Parliament to introduce amendments that allow all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians to marry. Not even Lyle Shelton could argue against that (well, he might try, but should be ignored).

 

  1. There is no mandate for new special privileges to discriminate against same-sex couples

 

On the other hand, a Yes vote does not provide the Government or Parliament with a mandate to introduce new special privileges allowing individuals and organisations to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Why? Because of the question that Australians were asked to answer: ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’

 

What is not there is just as important as what is. There were no asterisks at the end of the question, no footnotes on the survey form saying ‘different terms and conditions apply’.

 

Nor were there any extra clauses – it did not ask whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry subject to additional rights to discriminate against them.

 

The absence of asterisks, terms and conditions or extra clauses on the postal survey question means Parliament does not have a mandate to introduce asterisks, terms and conditions or extra clauses to our equality in the Marriage Act.

 

Indeed, this point was (inadvertently) conceded by former Prime Minister John Howard in September, when he called for current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to release details of the Bill it would put forward in the event of a Yes vote:

 

“On the evidence to date, it would seem that the only protections in that bill will not go much beyond stipulations that no minister, priest, rabbi or imam will be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony… It is precisely because parliament should reflect the will of the people that the people are entitled to know what, if anything, the government will do on protections before they vote.”

 

The fact the Turnbull Government did not put forward any official legislation means, by Howard’s own rationale, it does not have a mandate to introduce new special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Postal survey form

No asterisks, terms and conditions or extra clauses – the postal survey only asked whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

 

  1. There is a mandate for marriage equality

 

The wording of the postal survey question means a Yes vote does provide the Parliament with a mandate to introduce genuine marriage equality. In fact, I would argue they have an obligation to do exactly that.

 

Unless the question specifically stated that same-sex couples would be treated as lesser than cisgender heterosexual couples are now – which, as we have seen, it did not – then the logical inference is that they would and should be treated the same.

 

And that is exactly how the question was interpreted by the Australian population.

 

As reported by Buzzfeed this week, a Galaxy poll: “canvassed 1,000 Australians on their views on same-sex marriage from October 26 to 30.

 

“In response to the question, ‘If the majority vote ‘yes’ in the postal survey, should same-sex couples be treated the same under the law compared with other couples?’, 78% of respondents said yes.

 

“This figure consisted of 98% of respondents who said they had voted ‘yes’, and [even] 43% of those who said they had voted ‘no’.”

 

As noted by PFLAG’s Shelley Argent in the same article: “This poll couldn’t be clearer. Australians want marriage equality and we want it without any of the caveats and exemptions that will further entrench discrimination against same-sex couples.”

 

And so, if the outcome of the postal survey on 15 November is a Yes, then the message to our Parliamentarians will be unambiguous – they should provide LGBTI Australians with the right to marry, and they must do so on exactly the same terms as it is enjoyed by cisgender heterosexual couples today.

 

**********

 

Nobody should underestimate the scale of the challenge that lies ahead of us. Even if we win the postal survey in ten days time, the debate that follows, about what same-sex marriage looks like in practice, is going to be a messy one.

 

Our opponents will fight just as hard, and just as dirty, as they have over the past few months. We will need to rely once more on our patience, our passion and our principles to win.

 

It is also unclear how long this debate will last. While some express the hope that marriage equality could be passed by Christmas, it is possible that this process will take several months to resolve, lasting well into 2018. There is even the chance that same-sex marriage is not passed this term, because the legislation that is put forward has to be rejected as it falls short of true equality.

 

All of which means that, while Steven and I have (re)started our discussion about possible wedding dates, we still have no clear idea when that might ultimately be.

 

But I do know this: when I asked him to marry me on that January day in Melbourne almost eight years ago, there were no conditions attached. When Steven and I finally get married, there shouldn’t be any conditions attached either.

28 Reasons to Vote Yes on Marriage Equality

Untitled design-3

 

  1. Vote yes on marriage equality because love does not discriminate, and neither should the Marriage Act

 

  1. Vote yes for the tens of thousands of LGBTIQ Australian couples who are waiting for the opportunity to marry in front of family members and friends – just like anybody else

 

  1. And for other LGBTIQ couples who don’t want to get married, but who deserve the right to make that decision for themselves and not have it imposed upon them by the Parliament

 

  1. Vote yes out of respect for the couples where one or both have died over the past 13 years without being allowed to marry the love of their life[i]

 

  1. And to stop this same fate being experienced by other couples in the future

 

  1. Vote yes because no-one should be forced to divorce their spouse in order to have their gender identity recognised under the law[ii]

 

  1. Vote yes because a successful marriage is based on the content of your character, not your sex characteristics[iii]

 

  1. Vote yes to make it easier for LGBTIQ Australians to prove their relationships, especially when it matters most[iv]

 

  1. Vote yes to recognise the marriages of thousands of LGBTIQ Australians that already exist, having wed overseas

 

  1. And to ensure that, when some of those relationships break down, they are able to divorce[v]

 

  1. Vote yes so that all members of a family are treated exactly the same under the law

 

  1. Vote yes so that parents, and grandparents, and brothers and sisters, are able to attend the weddings of their family members

 

  1. And so that the children of rainbow families can attend the weddings of their parents

 

  1. Vote yes for all of the lesbian grandmas, gay uncles, bi aunts, trans nephews and intersex nieces, and queer cousins

 

  1. Vote yes if you think that your child should be able to marry whoever they want to when they grow up

 

  1. Vote yes if you think that every child should be able to marry whoever they want to when they grow up

 

  1. Vote yes on marriage equality for your friends

 

  1. And your colleagues

 

  1. And your teammates

 

  1. And your neighbours, and all of the LGBTIQ people in your community

 

  1. Vote yes for the many young LGBTIQ Australians still struggling to comes to terms with who they are, wondering whether they are accepted

 

  1. And for older LGBTIQ Australians who have experienced a lifetime of discrimination

 

  1. Vote yes for every LGBTIQ Australian, to show them that they are not lesser and should not be treated as lesser under the Marriage Act

 

  1. Vote yes because you are LGBTIQ yourself and this is a matter of pride

 

  1. Vote yes because you believe in a fair go for all, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics

 

  1. Vote yes because you think Australia can be a better, fairer and more inclusive country

 

  1. And because you want to help make Australia a better, fairer and more inclusive country

 

  1. Vote yes on marriage equality because all love is equal, and it’s time we changed the law to reflect that.

 

original_1495494419744.405

 

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] Like long-term LGBTIQ rights campaigners Peter and Bon, who were together for half a century, with Bon passing away earlier this year after having pleaded with Malcolm Turnbull to allow them to marry before he died – a plea that was ignored.

[ii] Australia was criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this year because of its policy of forced trans divorce. Find out more here.

[iii] To find out more about how discrimination in the Marriage Act affects people with intersex traits, see OII Australia’s submission to the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016.

[iv] Tragically, Tasmanian Ben Jago was unable to bury his de facto partner, or even attend his funeral, after his premature death (see this piece in the Guardian). While such discrimination is already unlawful, being married would make these situations far less common.

[v] Australia has also been criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee because of its failure to allow LGBTIQ couples that have married overseas to be able to divorce when those relationships break down. Find out more here.