Religious Freedoms Are Also Popular in Australia

Since the Marriage Law Postal Survey results came back with a 61.6% yes vote there has been much political pressure for the parliament to legislate same sex marriage as soon as possible. Immediately after the announcement Malcolm Turnbull promised to pass the legislation before Christmas.

Conservative members of the government have stressed that there must be adequate protections for religious freedoms which should not be pushed aside in an effort to rush the legislation through the parliament in this narrow timeframe. This was the situation former Prime Minister John Howard warned about during the postal survey when he called on the Turnbull Government to explicitly outline what protections would be included in any legislation.

The chief conservatives in the Turnbull Government Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann have suggested a broader debate around religious freedom should be deferred until 2018. However, Treasurer Scott Morrison is insisting that amendments to protect religious freedoms should be considered when the same sex marriage legislation is before the parliament.

The Dean Smith bill before the parliament only contains protections for ministers of religion and existing civil celebrants. The now dead James Paterson bill would have contained protections for all celebrants, free speech, parents and commercial operators of wedding services.

After the result yes advocates, Labor and Greens stated they would not accept anything they believed expanded discrimination when the Australian people voted to remove discrimination. They believe that the form same sex marriage is to take in Australia should not be dictated by the losers who only obtained 38.4% of the total vote.

However, the survey only approved same sex marriage, it did not ask voters do they disregard religious freedom as well? Given that religious freedoms is where the debate has now turned to it is also where pollsters have turned their attention to.

That is why the release of a Guardian/Essential Poll on these questions yesterday should make our politicians sit up and take notice. The poll 1,803 voters stated that 63% of Australians supported the right of ministers of religion and celebrants to refuse to marry same sex couples with only 27% opposed.

Despite exemptions to anti-discrimination laws being ruled out by most government ministers 48% of people polled supported the right of business owners to refuse to service same sex weddings with only 43% opposed. When it comes to parental rights 42% of those polled supported the rights of parents to remove their children from classes with 44% opposed.

Given that after all the speculation about the polls during the survey they ended up being in line with the official result we can have a degree of confidence that this poll on religious freedoms is reflective of views of the Australian community. There are certainly people who voted yes to same sex marriage who want religious freedoms protected as well. Scott Morrison highlighted this fact in an interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30.

In an effort to placate concerns about religious freedoms Attorney-General George Brandis floated idea of incorporating Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into the Marriage Act. However, it has been quickly pointed out that such an amendment could have unintended consequences such as permitting of Sharia law in Australia.

To demonstrate he is serious about considering religious freedoms and is not putting it on the backburner Malcolm Turnbull has created a panel which will be tasked with reviewing protections for religious freedom in Australia. It will be chaired by former Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock. Also part of the panel is Human Rights Commission President Rosalind Croucher, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and Catholic Priest and human rights lawyer Father Frank Brennan.

The postal survey did not mean one group of people’s freedoms trumped another group’s. There are certainly some in the yes side who would like to use the result as a justification to persecute people they believe have been their oppressors. However mature people agree that freedoms of all Australians should continue to be protected. The legalization of same sex marriage does not have to be a zero-sum game or winner takes all.

  • Malcolm Smith

    I wouldn’t have confidence on any report authored by Frank Brennan or any member of the Human Rights Commission.