On 15 November 2017, the results of the national postal survey on the issue of same-sex marriage were announced. Of the 12.7 million Australians who participated in the survey, approximately 7.8 million (61.6%) voted in support of the law being changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. Approximately 4.9 million (38.4%) voted against.

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (Cth), a private member’s Bill introduced by Senator Dean Smith to implement these changes passed the Senate last week.

On 1 December 2017, 14 senior church leaders across Australia wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten (“the Open Letter”), voicing their concern at the refusal of the Senate to make amendments to the Bill to protect religious freedoms.

The Victorian Christian Legal Society (“VCLS”) has members from numerous denominations and backgrounds. The VCLS does not presume to speak for its members as a whole on the issue of whether same sex marriage should be legalised. We recognise that there is a diversity of opinion among our membership.

However, it is uncontroversial that many Christians do subscribe to a traditional view of marriage as being a union specifically between a man and a woman, privileged over other types of relationship because of its status as a fundamental institution vital for the raising of children and the preservation of society. Christianity is not the only faith in which this is the established, conservative position.

The results of the national postal survey indicate that there is a significant (around 4.9 million strong) minority of voters that does not support redefining marriage at law to include same sex couples. This is not a negligible or small demographic by any means.

It is critical that any law that is ultimately implemented to allow same-sex marriage appropriately accounts for differing views within the Australian community, even as it implements the will of the majority.

We urge Parliament to act to ensure that it protects freedom of conscience, belief and religion in legislating to allow same-sex marriage.

In particular, we call upon the House of Representatives to ensure protection for the following rights, as articulated in the Open Letter of 1 December 2017:

  1. The right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their religious and moral convictions;
  2. The right of religious institutions to ensure that their facilities are used in accordance with their religious beliefs and principles;
  3. The right of religious institutions to establish and maintain faith-based charities in accordance with their convictions;
  4. The right of religious institutions to express their beliefs, provided it is done in a way that respectfully engages with the community; and
  5. The right of civil celebrants to act in accordance with their genuinely held religious or conscientious conviction.

None of the above rights are assured in the Bill’s current iteration.

We also call upon the House of Representatives to ensure that charities that express a traditional view of marriage will not be denied their charitable status. This protection is similarly not assured in the Bill’s current iteration.

An essential element for the proper functioning of our legal system (and our democracy) is the ability for individuals to express views that others may disagree with, without fear of persecution. The Society supports the protection of this freedom and warns strongly against the undermining of it through legislation.

Further information and useful reading

Several informative links to articles and webpages covering the passage of the Bill and arguments concerning its content are set out below. Please note that the links cover a wide range of views on the topic and are not necessarily representative of the views of the VCLS or of the Committee.

“Same-sex marriage bill: We need amendments and it’s not just about bakers and florists” (16 November 2017), ABC News.

Freedom for Faith media release (27 November 2017).

“Same-sex marriage passes historic hurdle as Labor moves to veto religious freedoms” (29 November 2017), The Sydney Morning Herald.

“The problem of a same sex marriage exemption for civil celebrants” (29 November 2017), Pursuit.

“Church heads pen open letter over same-sex marriage bill fears” (1 December 2017), The Australian.

“Anglican bishops break ranks to support Dean Smith’s same-sex marriage bill” (4 December 2017), The Sydney Morning Herald.

Parliament of Australia webpage for Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017.