The country’s peak legal body, the Law Council of Australia, has criticised the same-sex marriage bill proposed by Liberal Senator James Paterson as an “extraordinary and perilous” weakening of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws.
On Monday, Senator Paterson unveiled a bill to legalise same-sex marriages but also allow a range of service providers to discriminate against same-sex couples planning weddings on religious or “conscientious” grounds.
Law Council of Australia President Fiona McLeod SC said in a statement that while the Paterson bill acknowledges the concerns of those holding traditional views of marriage, it goes well beyond the issue of marriage in a number of crucial respects.
“Australia’s anti-discrimination laws were amended in 2013 to enact important protections for LGBTI people in recognition of the unacceptable levels of discrimination. This Bill will encroach on many of these protections in an extraordinary and perilous way,” she said.
“For example, the Bill would allow people to refuse to provide goods and services on the grounds of belief, thought and conscience taking us well beyond religious beliefs into unchartered waters.
“You could potentially see a situation where a hire car company could leave their customers stranded on the way to a marriage ceremony simply because the driver held a thought or belief against it. This is even if the belief had nothing to do with religion.”
McLeod said freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right, and discrimination based on personal attributes such as sexual orientation is contrary to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and Australia’s international obligations.
“The right to freedom of religion also appears in international law. While the freedom to have religious beliefs is also protected unconditionally, the manifestation or expression of those beliefs or religion may be subject to limitation where it impacts upon other fundamental rights,” she said.
Senator Paterson has defended the provisions to refuse service to couples by saying they would only extend to goods and service providers that are “directly connected” to same-sex weddings.
“It’s not about the person, it’s about the event. You can’t decline to supply a person based on their own characteristics [but] you can decline to participate in their wedding,” he told Fairfax Media.
Fiona McLeod said the same-sex marriage bill developed Senator Dean Smith and endorsed by other government members already extended existing protections for freedom of religious expression in the context of marriage and was a “reasonable compromise.”
“The Smith Bill supports the protection of religious freedoms in two key ways. It permits ministers of religion and religious marriage celebrants to refuse to solemnise a marriage and it allows bodies established for religious purposes to refuse to provide goods or services for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage,” she said.
“While the Law Council does not endorse every detail of the Smith Bill it represents a better balance from a human rights perspective and represents greater fairness, including those affected by winding back anti-discrimination laws.”
Smith’s bill has the support of Labor and The Equality Campaign, and on Monday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it would be a good starting point if a “yes” vote is announced on Wednesday morning.
“[The Smith bill] has been around for some months and is clearly a good bill to start with,” he said.
“In a situation like this when a bill is presented, it’s like the first draft. That gets put up, and there’ll no doubt be plenty of amendments debated, no doubt, for hours on end and at the end of it they’ll come to a conclusion on an amended bill.”