Religious Freedom Protects Same-Sex Couples Too


Balancing freedom is no mean feat, but it doesn’t come about by prioritising religious beliefs over others, writes Hugh Harris.

The sleight of hand placing religious freedom at the centre of the same-sex marriage debate disguises its real purpose. A wave of the wand, a puff of smoke, and the rights of some have disappeared. So goes the illusionist’s trick that freedom of belief applies only to the faithful.

The most curious thing about November’s Religious Freedom Roundtable was the silence of faith groups on same-sex marriage. Contrast this quietness with the bluster of media conservatives and Christian lobbyists calling it a “threat”, “attack”, and “calculated assault” on religious freedom.

The Religious Freedom Roundtable held on 5 November 2015 was attended by 36 faith and non-faith groups. Hosted by Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, it was the first of many forums aimed at balancing freedom of thought, conscience and religion, within our secular society.

But if same-sex marriage so imperils our freedoms, why didn’t faith groups raise it? And why didn’t they support further meetings to seek ways of accommodating religious freedom? The media release notes attendance of future forums will be optional.

The religious freedom narrative is just a bulwark to slow the advance of marriage equality. Alas, the sudden interest in the convictions of cake makers and florists hasn’t been accompanied by considered proposals on balancing their freedoms with same-sex marriage.

Paul Kelly, in The Australian argues freedom of faith is under siege by an “aggressive secularism” seeking to “transform our values”. By example he cites formal action taken against the Catholic Bishops of Australia in Tasmania for handing out to students the “Don’t Mess with Marriage” booklet at Catholic schools.

One can’t help but notice the grand scale of the delusion. Kelly espies the godless trying to change “our values”, but can’t see that our values have already changed. Catholic Bishops of Australia assumed its students and their parents would support their anti-same-sex campaign. But in some cases students handed the brochure back. Rather than a constructive contribution to public debate, this is a desperate and inappropriate attempt to politicize the schoolyard.

new matilda, don't mess with marriage
An image from the Don’t Mess With Marriage booklet.

According to Australian Marriage Equality national director, Rodney Croome, the booklet “denigrates and demeans same-sex relationships”. The booklet also urges the reader to “make your views known to your parliamentary representatives”.

This is not, pace Kelly, a “test case” for religious freedom but a case of manufactured outrage designed to portray same-sex marriage as a menace. The matter has gone to conciliation. Matters of law rather than any enduring moral principle will resolve the Tasmanian case. The hope that a one-off ruling will provide traditionalists with a magic wand is in vain.

How society balances secularism and religious freedom remains the subject of ongoing debate. The smoke clears once we eschew bluff and bluster in favour of understanding religious freedom’s real meaning.

Religious freedom is derived from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion. The progenitor for these freedoms is freedom of thought. Article 18 of the UNDHR protects non-belief and atheistic beliefs equally to faith-based beliefs. Freedom of religion is always mentioned alongside the broader term freedom of belief.

So, religious freedom protects the same-sex couple just as much as an Anglican Bishop. The UNDHR protects the right of LGBTI couples to believe in non-traditional marriage. But presently, the law prevents same-sex couples from exercising this belief. Same-sex marriage opponents may justifiably argue that the law cannot protect all beliefs. And herein lies the gravamen.

The law isn’t determined by freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It’s determined by democratically elected parliaments, who reflect the wishes and attitudes of the people. Thus, in of itself, legalising same-sex marriage isn’t an attack or threat to religious freedom.

Traditionalists who claim otherwise should reflect on how the freedom of same-sex couples wishing to marry is currently altogether denied. No group or ideology has any particular right to demand the law conforms to their set of beliefs.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, in The Age, argues that people must be allowed to express devout, deeply held beliefs. But apply this logic to all beliefs, not just religious ones. To wit: the beliefs of the 7-year-old girl who was told she was unwelcome at Mandurah Christian College. Also, consider the beliefs of the Bishop who implored students to campaign against same-sex marriage at a Catholic school graduation ceremony – but don’t dismiss the beliefs of the child with two mums who was heard sobbing as he spoke.

Many people hold deep convictions about practises which are currently unlawful: euthanasia, the use of medicinal cannabis, and many non-western cultural practices.

Beliefs are just that: beliefs. Installing the word “religious” before doesn’t imbue them with magical powers. Let’s make it painstakingly clear: Religious beliefs do not trump non-religious beliefs.

Someone please inform the clergy. Neither faith nor non faith-based beliefs should have a license to override the law or the freedoms of others.

But that doesn’t mean religious freedom has no currency. Exponents of marriage equality and secularists shouldn’t unnecessarily seek to exclude the consciences of faith groups.

A sensible conversation about balancing freedom of conscience with same-sex marriage is overdue. And most Australians, including the majority of Christians, agree that finally allowing same-sex couples the freedom to marry is the first step.

The bells of religious freedom ring loudly in Australia. Believers and disbelievers freely voice their views in the public square. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, I don’t mind whether you believe in God or not. I don’t mind who you choose to marry. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

We can’t wave a magic wand to wish away the personhood of others, nor should we desire to. Same-sex couples are entitled to their religious freedom too.

Hugh Harris board member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and writes a blog called The Rational Razor.