Debate in Australia on religious freedom after historic vote

The Sydney Opera House lit up last week to celebrate the passing of the same-sex marriage laws in Australia, with 62 per cent of the public in support.
The Sydney Opera House lit up last week to celebrate the passing of the same-sex marriage laws in Australia, with 62 per cent of the public in support.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Legalisation of same-sex marriage sparks calls to protect opponents

Australia is facing a growing debate on whether to do more to protect religious freedoms following the historic legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Religious groups are leading the opposition to Parliament's changes last week to marriage laws. They insist that people such as wedding celebrants, florists and cakemakers should have the right to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.

Despite 62 per cent of the public supporting same-sex marriage in a national vote, almost five million voters said "no" - and the government is considering how, or whether, to make sure their voices are heard.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a strong supporter of same-sex marriage, but he has come under heavy pressure from conservative members of the ruling Liberal-National Coalition to protect religious freedoms.

An attempt by some MPs to include safeguards to protect opponents of same-sex marriage failed.

These safeguards include proposals to protect free speech, guarantee parents' rights to withdraw children from schools whose teachings they oppose, and to protect marriage celebrants who do not want to officiate at same-sex weddings.

Critics said the proposals were unnecessary and could lead to discrimination.

To quell disquiet within the coalition, Mr Turnbull last month appointed retired veteran Liberal MP Phillip Ruddock to lead an inquiry into religious rights and freedoms.

The inquiry will look broadly at Australia's religious freedoms, rather than specifically at same-sex marriage laws. It will report its findings by March 31.

"This is an opportunity for those who have concerns that religious freedoms are not adequately protected to set out why they believe it is so," Mr Turnbull told The Australian.

"If there are changes to the law that are recommended, then we will consider them very carefully."

The inquiry is likely to present Mr Turnbull with a political headache as he tries to accommodate conservatives without flouting the apparent will of the majority.

In recent decades, Australia has become markedly more agnostic and less Christian.

According to the most recent national census, last year, 52 per cent of residents are Christian, down from 74 per cent in 1991.

About 30 per cent of the population said they had no religion, up from 13 per cent in 1991 and just 1 per cent in 1966.

Another 8 per cent said they were affiliated to other religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, and a further 10 per cent chose not to state their religious beliefs.

Despite the decline in religious affiliation, there are still some areas with fervent beliefs.

For instance, the same-sex marriage plebiscite results showed that some areas in western Sydney were staunchly opposed to the change. This is believed to be partly due to strong campaigning by Christian and Muslim groups.

After the national vote in favour of same-sex marriage, some religious organisations pledged to keep up the fight.

The Australian Christian Lobby said the failure by Parliament to include safeguards in the marriage laws "sent shock waves through churches, mosques and Christian and Muslim schools".

"It is not the end. It is the beginning of a freshly galvanised movement to keep speaking up for the truth," Mr Lyle Shelton, head of the lobby, said in a blog post last Tuesday.

Political commentator Paul Kelly said the new laws had not united the country and that the view of the majority "inflicted a crushing defeat on every effort to bolster individual and religious freedoms".

He also suggested a second national vote on protecting religious freedoms.

But some analysts said Australia already has protections for religious freedom and should not endorse laws that could lead to open discrimination.

Two legal experts - Ms Anja Hilkemeijer from the University of Tasmania, and Dr Amy Maguire from the University of Newcastle - said the freedom to discriminate on the basis of religious belief, such as refusing to sell flowers at gay weddings, was not an "absolute" right.

"Freedom of religion is a shield to protect religious minorities from discrimination," they wrote in an article on The Conversation website on Nov 28.

"It is not, and never has been, a sword to justify discrimination against others."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Debate in Australia on religious freedom after historic vote'. Print Edition | Subscribe