CHURCHES’ FIGHT AGAINST SAME-SEX MARRIAGE GAINS MOMENTUM
In the echo of church bells after Sunday service, over tea in living rooms adorned with the cross, and in the quiet, carpeted offices of the devout, whispers of a looming moral apocalypse are gaining strength. In the past few weeks, Christian leaders have decided to voice those fears from the pulpit in an attempt to reframe the public debate around same-sex marriage in Australia. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, has painted the most frightening picture yet of how gay marriage might threaten democracy itself. Should the plebiscite on the issue expected in the next parliament be successful, within a decade bishops could be imprisoned, political dissent silenced, scripture lessons banned, and tax exemptions for religious institutions discarded, he said in an address to the free market think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies.
In a speech provocatively titled “Should Bakers Be Required to Bake Gay Wedding Cakes?”, Archbishop Fisher warned of persecution and prosecution for those who failed to “toe the PC line” in a post-gay marriage world. For Christians who apply a more literal interpretation of the Bible, fears of the fundamental erosion of “religious freedoms” are not new. The archbishop cited the case of the Oregon bakers who were earlier this year ordered to pay almost $200,000 in damages after they refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. “The baker couple faced vilification, boycotts of their business, violent protests and even death threats, and were forced to close their shop and work from home,” he said. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, also called on people of faith to speak up against the tide of pro-gay marriage sentiment, even if that meant weathering vilification and hatred.
“There simply is no ‘marriage equality’ for everyone,” Dr Davies said. “Marriage necessarily has boundaries that even the adherents of the facile rhetoric of ‘marriage equality’ cannot deny.” Children, siblings and those already betrothed cannot be married, for instance. “Yet we are the ones portrayed as being discriminatory in our defence of marriage, when in fact we are not alone,” he said. Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has convened a “roundtable” on religious freedom, and has even suggested there may need to be exemptions made to anti-discrimination laws to give the pious the right to prejudice against gay nuptials on religious grounds. He has since conceded those exemptions are unlikely to occur. “The issue is primarily about how far people should be compelled to act against their conscience,” he said.
“Many people argue very strongly that being forced to participate or support an act that violates their understanding of marriage is compulsion against their conscience. “We need to have a rational, reasoned and considered discussion about the benefit to same-sex couples and those against a change in marriage laws about people being compelled to participate,” he said. “But to do so necessitates those of faith respecting the freedom of same-sex couples to marry.” To civil libertarians, the notion of accommodating prejudice towards same-sex couples in the name of religious observance is absurd. But for some Christians, the very idea of participating – even on the fringes – of a gay marriage is anathema to their beliefs. The NSW arm of the Presbyterian Church has already suggested it might get out of the marriage business altogether should same-sex unions be legalised.
Professor Danielle Celermajer, from the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, said religious freedom debates had arisen before at times of great social transformation around gender and race, for example. “This is not unprecedented,” she said. At one time, some would have argued “marriage across race lines was against God’s law”. “There may be some service providers who are closely associated with particular religious bodies that may merit exemption. On the face of it, there was a conflict between the rights of gay people to marry and the right of deeply religious people to object to that, but devout bakers and florists would simply learn to live with it in a pluralistic society like Australia’s, Professor Celermajer said. “If you cannot provide the service to gay couples, then you cannot provide the service at all,” she said.