The survey might be over, but the jury is still out and the battle for equality is far from won.
No sooner did the polls close than the debate on what the legislation might look like began. What should be merely the abolishing of the Marriage Amendment Act 2004 is becoming an over-complicated shemozzle as conservatives try and stuff any change to legislation full of ‘religious exemptions’ that would see butchers, bakers and candlestick makers enshrined with the government-sanctioned right to refuse service to LGBT+ people if it interferes with their religious sensibilities.
But where does religious freedom start and end? Is it only if the service being requested is specifically for a same-sex wedding, or can businesses start hanging ‘No gays’ signs in their window? If people can legally discriminate against LGBT+ people, then why not level the playing field and scrap 18C while we’re at it?
Much ado was made by conservatives during the so-called respectful debate about the ‘slippery slope’ and how gay people are the gateways to a world where incest, bestiality and pedophilia would suddenly become widespread and compulsory.
Aside from being total hogwash, let’s flip the script and look at a far more likely scenario – a world where far right conservatives use exemptions from marriage law as a precedent to weaken or outright abolish anti-discrimination legislation. After all, why should you only be legally allowed to discriminate against gay people? What is it about our community that seems to make some people believe it is okay to run roughshod over us? Having said that, it won’t just be the QUILTBAG (yes, apparently it’s a thing) that is effected.
Remember the straight couple in Ballarat whose wedding was cancelled at the eleventh hour because they publicly supported marriage equality? That is what unchecked religious freedom looks like in practice, and that is just one of the many special privileges that churches hold as they continue to keep themselves aloft of civic law – you know, like not being required to report child sexual abuse divulged during confession.
Writing exemptions into marriage legislation that allows those beyond religious ministers to exclude services to LGBT+ people enshrines discrimination into law (the exact opposite what we are trying to achieve), and has the potential to be used not just against the LGBT+ community, but to target and silence our allies – without whom we could never have got as far as we have.
Unless the marriage law is the same for all couples seeking to marry, then equality has not been achieved. However, the centrist in me is willing to look at both sides and while I don’t claim to understand, I know that some people harbour negative and even hateful opinions towards to the LGBT+ community. Like Pastor Logan Roberston, a New Zealand preacher who publicly called for the death penalty for gay people, and says he has nothing against gays getting married ‘as long as they get a bullet through the head the moment they kiss’. By the way, this religious extremist has just immigrated to Australia with his family to found a church in Brisbane. It’s okay though, he’s white.
Lyle Shelton, pseudo-Christian and leader of the ACL, has entreated the yes side to prove how people like Pastor Logan’s religious freedom is to be protected in the event of a yes win. I posit that the burden of proof lies not with the yes side, but with those who seek for special privilege to be written in to law, or seek to be exempt from law entirely.
Therefore, I would like to see zero exemptions written into the marriage law itself. It is unnecessary, divisive and contrary to the goal of equality. Instead, I think a provision could potentially be made for those who wish to apply for an exemption in much the same way organisations are able to apply for exemptions from anti-discrimination laws on special grounds. The applicant would need to prove why the exemption is necessary and each application would be assessed and granted on its merit.
Anti-discrimination exemptions are not uncommon and the decision to grant or decline an exemption (along with any conditions) is a matter of public record as you can see by visiting the Australian Human Rights Commission website.
With such a provision, equality becomes the law unencumbered by the entrenchment of additional discrimination within the written legislation, and those who feel strongly enough that they wish not to take part in our evolving and inclusive society have a legal avenue to go down if that’s how they truly feel. Those with their government granted exemption can proudly display it in their place of business, and we will happily take our extravagant, detailed and expensive wedding plans to a direct competitor.
In the meantime, we have the Dean Smith Bill on the table. Although it has the support of Australian Marriage Equality, many advocates, including Rodney Croome of just.equal, are calling for its rejection. As noted by queer writer and activist Doug Pollard on The Stirrer, the debate on the legislation has divided the advocate community and continues to be hotly contested.
Personally, I feel the AME slogan of ‘let’s get it done’ should more appropriately be ‘let’s get it done right‘. Conceding some discrimination not only sets a dangerous precedent over what sort of discrimination is and isn’t acceptable, it is totally counter to the cause and brings us maybe 90% of the way to true equality. That’s not getting it done. That’s like me starting off this sentence and then not fi-
Meanwhile, conservative MPs are currently drafting an ‘alternate bill’ amid their concerns that the Dean Smith Bill does not go far enough in its scope to protect those who object to same sex marriage. I shudder to think what that will look like.
In the days between now and results day, we are in the eye of the storm. Our community, having been a political football for as many years as I can remember, deserves this short lull as we wait for our fate to be decided. Tensions are high, nerves are shot, but we hope for the best outcome. But, much like an American election, even if we win the popular vote, we haven’t actually won yet. A yes vote is the first (albeit completely unnecessary) hurdle. I don’t even want to contemplate a winning no vote, even though part of me is mentally preparing myself for that possibility.
And so, we wait. Some of us pray, some of us wish, all of us hope. We hope that Australia will get it done, but it will only be done if we get it done RIGHT.