God has no place in marriage equality debate

ON Thursday, the High Court handed down its decision regarding the same-sex marriage survey, claiming there's no legal impediment and enabling it to proceed.

From tomorrow, forms will start arriving in letterboxes around Australia and the "yes" and "no" campaigns, which have already been lobbying hard, will no doubt up the ante until the November 15 cut off.

Sadly, the High Court decision doesn't seem to have changed the nature of the increasingly toxic debate around SSM. This is a debate that despite all Malcolm Turnbull's insistence it would be "civil," has been shameful, hurting individuals, children and families and revealing Australia to be a fractured rather than unified society - even over something that seeks to be inclusive.

In other words, all those who feared what a survey and/or plebiscite would unleash, were right.

The survey might not be so problematic and polarising if it wasn't for two things: it isn't in any way binding and it's a shockingly expensive exercise for no legislative result.

What's also worrying in this ongoing "debate", regardless of which side of the fence you stand, is the role religion and religious arguments against SSM have played and continue to in what's effectively a change to a piece of legislation enacted by our supposedly secular democratic Parliament - the Marriage Act of 1961.

A long piece of legislation with various amendments over the years, it acknowledges the role of religious ministers, they are just one type of "authorised" celebrant. The Act is not a religious document. At no point is God or the Bible evoked as playing a role.

A religious minister must be registered through law - not God - to perform these ceremonies.

In s. 5 the Act states marriage is "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life." But this exclusionary definition was inserted by the Howard government in 2004.

Howard argued that through the legislation (which was rushed through parliament with no public consultation or debate) "they wanted to make it very plain that the definition of a marriage is something that should rest in the hands ultimately of the Parliament of the nation".

Pity the current government doesn't feel the same way.

Instead, they've opted for a non-binding survey and allowed various lobby groups and religious bodies to try to sway any resolve to change the Act again.

Over the years, there have been Bills introduced to Parliament to alter Howard's wording to "two people": by Bill Shorten, Sarah Hanson-Young. David Leyonhjelm, Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and Stephen Jones, to name a few - and from all political persuasions.

While current law allows religious ministers the right to choose which marriages they perform and which they decline according to their beliefs, at no point does it say that marriage is sanctified by God or the church.

So, if our Marriage Act can keep God out of it, why can't we? Wouldn't it be better for everyone if the churches stood to one side and let the necessary changes under secular law proceed?

Concern that allowing SSM will impinge on religious freedoms/beliefs and the right people have to express these, overlooks the fact that ministers can already decline to marry for those very reasons - for example, Catholic priests can refuse to marry anyone who has been divorced.

So raising this as a reason not to pass SSM seems to be a red herring, designed to foreground problems that may never exist - or, if they do, in such small numbers as to be inconsequential.

Surely, once the Marriage Act is amended, same-sex couples who observe a particular religion can then lobby their particular church or minister/celebrant if they feel their rights are being discriminated against and, in turn, the relevant religious body can represent their position.

For years now, same-sex couples and families have had to rigorously defend, console, explain and argue about their human rights being ignored and trammelled upon. Made to feel abnormal and discriminated against, they've just had to endure. The impact this has had on their lives and that of their loved ones is enormous.

Instead of addressing this by not opposing change to the legal definition of marriage - a recent alteration itself - those against SSM have used "whataboutery" to deflect the issue. What about freedom of religion? What about sex education? What about the children? What about this? What about that?

This is the 21st century. It's time to stop being held hostage by religious "whatabouts" and through the secular law of the Marriage Act, enshrine the rights of all Australian citizens to wed the person of their choice.

Dr Karen Brooks is a honorary senior research fellow at the University of Queensland.

News Corp Australia

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