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“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
–Jesus of Nazareth, about 30 AD
THE Chief Minister this week stated his desire of having freedom from religion. His point was that religion interfered with his life and his relationship, and he should not be forced to abide by beliefs he didn’t agree with. It is a sentiment we can all resonate with.
However, is it that simple? Our entire legal system is built in large part on Judeo-Christian ethics and so, in many ways, we are all bound by the impact of others’ beliefs. Our foundational democratic document, the Magna Carta, was written by churchmen. The concept of human rights was founded in the idea of humans being made in the image and likeness of God. Heck, even our daily calendar is based entirely around the birth of a Jewish religious teacher (see above quote).
On the other hand, freedom to live our own lives as we see fit is one of the greatest features of Australia. The non-establishment clause in section 116 of the Constitution states that the Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion. This has been built into our very foundations, and this freedom to follow any god or no god is a key reason why Australia has flourished so.
In many ways, the concerns from the “No” sides of the same-sex marriage debate are similar to the Chief Minister’s. They want to know what freedom they will have from his beliefs being imposed on their lives and those of their families if a “Yes” vote is successful. Religious or not, ideas have consequences for the laws we make.
Indeed, this is perhaps the main difference between the arguments of the Chief Minister and the ones from those in the churches, mosques and temples. The organisations run by worshippers are in a separate sphere from that of governance and law making. Once religion did have widespread authority to make laws, but now we have figured out that a healthy separation leads to less conflict.
The Chief Minister on the other hand controls the long sword of the State. Therefore, if he wishes to impose his beliefs on the people, he has the force of law behind him to do so.
The main areas of concern that could affect freedom in any redefinition of marriage are in education, business and the public sector. Some may view this question of civil society freedom as a “red herring” on the question at hand in the postal survey, but as in any policy we have to explore the broader impact of a proposed change. Just like the Adani coal mine is not simply about coal, we need to ask questions about the “environmental” impact.
Education is the first freedom potentially impacted. Just this week ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry criticised a Christian school after they supported a “No” vote for not being LGBTIQ+ inclusive. This same accusation has recently been used against a private Jewish school in London, which is facing closure from the government for not being willing to teach the new beliefs now enshrined in law. Will parents be unable to withdraw their children from LGBTIQ+ sex education classes as has happened in parts of Canada? Will university students be expelled from courses for posting their views on personal Facebook pages as has happened in the UK?
Business could be impacted as well. Currently in the US there are two small business owners who are appealing to the Supreme Court after the State imposed massive fines for not being willing to be involved in a same-sex wedding. Closer to home we see 18-year-old Madeline being fired for holding personal beliefs on traditional marriage. Will their freedoms be protected?
Lastly, it is worth asking what freedoms there will still be in the public services. If a teacher, nurse or department worker refuses to use the correct terms and chosen pronouns of a colleague, will they be sent for “re-training”? A Commonwealth government employee recently faced discipline after asking to be unsubscribed from a “pride” newsletter that his department sent around, and this is before any law has been changed.
Freedom from religion is tremendously important, but the imperative certainly lies more with those who can enforce their beliefs with the long arm of the law.
Nick Jensen is the director of the Lachlan Macquarie Institute, which helps develop leaders in public policy (lmi.org.au).
The author’s views are not necessarily those of “CityNews”, a pluralist publication that invites debate or letters from all sides of the SSM issue (firstname.lastname@example.org).