A majority of LGBTI Australians have rejected controversial provisions in the government’s draft marriage equality bill that would specifically allow same-sex couples to be refused service by civil celebrants and faith-owned businesses.
But the draft bill itself is now before a Senate inquiry that is looking at proposed exemptions “for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious bodies and organisations to refuse to conduct or solemnise marriages,” according to its terms of reference.
Marriage equality advocates have zeroed in on two clauses in the draft bill: one that would allow civil celebrants to refuse to solemnise a marriage if the refusal “is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman” or is based on a “conscientious” belief, a term which they say is not defined in the bill.
And a second that proposes that “religious bodies” and “religious organisations” be permitted to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services to LGBTI couples for weddings. This provision also singles out same-sex couples and is unnecessary, advocates say, as it matches existing religious exemptions in federal discrimination law.
The bill also makes clear that the contentious provisions “[do] not limit the grounds on which” a marriage celebrant or religious minister may refuse to solemnise a marriage.
According to the results of a survey commissioned by LGBTI groups PFLAG and Just.equal, 81 percent of the 6,342 LGBTI Australians polled oppose the idea that services could be refused under the exemptions.
That figure increased to 88.8% when respondents were told same-sex couples were specifically singled out in the bill. A similar number of respondents remained opposed to the exemptions even if – hypothetically – passing marriage equality this year depended on them.
PFLAG spokesperson Shelley Argent (pictured, centre) said that the groups now campaign on the back of the survey results “to show politicians that LGBTI people want true marriage equality, not a watered-down version that entrenches prejudice and discrimination.”
Australian Marriage Equality and Australians 4 Equality said civil celebrants acting on behalf of the state shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples, and the provisions in the draft bill would set a “dangerous precedent” in Australian law.
“Ministers of religion are and should always be free to conduct marriages in accordance with their religious tenets and doctrines,” A4E co-chair Anna Brown said.
“The Bill proposes to introduce the concept of a ‘conscientious belief’ and permit civil celebrants to discriminate against same-sex couples on the basis of their personal individual views not necessarily linked to religion.
“There is a risk that this exemption could be extended to other contexts such as commercial services, education or health or used to justify discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, religion.”
Ms Brown said same-sex couples shouldn’t be singled out for exclusion when existing laws already protect religious freedoms.
The Coalition of Celebrant Associations (CoCA) told the inquiry the civil celebrants exemptions should be struck out, writing in their submission that “any marrying couple who meet the criteria for valid marriage have the right to expect they would not be refused that service on the basis of a personal objection from a professional civil marriage celebrant.”
In their submission, the Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants said a 2016 survey of their members found 87% of respondents supported marriage equality but the organisation wanted the exemptions to remain.
Veteran marriage equality campaigner Rodney Croome (pictured, left) said the challenge for political leaders is finding “a path forward that treats all Australians with equal dignity.”
“The message to politicians is that the LGBTIQ community does not want the path to marriage equality to be lined with new inequalities, just as it didn’t want the path to lead through a hateful plebiscite,” he said.
The Senate committee is due to report by February 13.