This article first appeared in The Guardian.
The debate on the consensus cross-party bill has resumed in the Senate. It is very clear that across the parliament our representatives have heard the overwhelming mandate delivered by the postal survey loudly and clearly.
When the Senate last sat, we saw history being made with LGBTI members from all major parties, Dean Smith, Penny Wong, Janet Rice and Louise Pratt, leading the debate. They all noted that when Australia voted yes, it was a yes for true equality for all Australians and not a licence to increase discrimination.
With that in mind, it’s hard to take seriously the latest attempts by some right wing senators to introduce new and unprecedented forms of discrimination into the bill designed to achieve equality for LGBTI people. We will see some amendments described innocently as “declarations” or efforts to enshrine international human rights principles. Do not be fooled.
The government has already announced an inquiry into religious freedom. This is the appropriate vehicle to explore these issues and look at any so-called consequences. After being sent the bill for the postal survey, the Australian public expect action on marriage equality. They will not stand for further delay as some attempt to turn the “no” side’s talking points into amendments.
Amendments flagged by those who oppose marriage equality seeking to enshrine the concept of “conscientious objection” were criticised in the cross-party senate inquiry report earlier in the year. Allowing anyone to “conscientiously object” to someone else because of their sexuality, race or disability is unacceptable in modern Australian society – it goes against the foundation of equal treatment enshrined in Australian law for decades. The entire purpose of anti-discrimination protections is to ensure that we are all treated fairly and equally in public regardless of who we are or who we love.
It is also deeply concerning to see discussion of amendments to discriminate in the provision of goods, services and facilities related to marriage by any entity or individual, including commercial businesses. This would cause chaos and entrench deeply unacceptable discrimination that Australians rejected decades ago.
Under these amendments, a taxi driver could turn away a same-sex couple travelling to their wedding. A bank teller could refuse to authorise a personal loan for a same-sex couple for their wedding or possibly even their honeymoon. A hotel could refuse to take reservations of guests in town for their friend or family member’s same-sex wedding. These laws would provide no certainty for LGBTI Australians, their families and supporters of marriage equality to be treated fairly and equally in Australia.
The concept of a “no detriment” clause is a blatant attempt to punch holes in discrimination law and introduce special privileges for religious conservatives who want to be able to say and do whatever they want with impunity. Do we really want to return to the days where children born out of wedlock were seen as second class by society? To go back to a society where those who have sex before marriage would be judged in the public square? These unprecedented and legally unorthodox amendments are an opportunistic attempt by extreme conservatives to undo the social progress of the last 40 years.
The amendments flagged about parents being able to take their kids out of school for subjects they don’t believe in are both unnecessary and risk serious unintended consequences. Religious schools already enjoy exemptions that give them free reign to teach according to their doctrine and faith. Parents already decide what school their children go to, and whether they should attend scripture or ethics classes. Would we allow people who believe the earth is flat to take kids out of geography classes?
Importantly, all these amendments from opponents are inconsistent with the Senate select committee’s report released earlier this year, which senators like James Paterson signed up to, reflecting an historic cross-party consensus on legislating for marriage equality.
The report recommended that same-sex couples should not be unnecessarily singled out under any marriage equality bill and noted “conscientious belief … lacked definition and could potentially have an unlimited scope”. The ability to refuse a good or service based on “conscientious belief” was recognised as “controversial” and “lacking precedent under Australian law”. As the report states: “The committee is not inclined to disturb established anti-discrimination law and practice.”
We’ve had the postal survey, we have a bill ready to go. It is time for action. Those seeking to muddy the waters now with unnecessary and harmful amendments are not only ignoring the will of the people, they are insulting our national values of fairness and equality. Let’s get marriage equality done now in a way that best represents who we are as a country. There should be no more discrimination as the Australian people expect long overdue equality.
Anna Brown is co-chair of the Equality Campaign and a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre