Today the ABS announced the results of the Australian Marriage Survey. The result is clear 61.7% of respondents said yes to changing the law to allow same sex couples to marry. With a turn out of just under 80% this result is clear and incontestable.
So what happens now? How should those of us who hold a conservative traditional view of marriage respond? How should we as Christians respond?
We should respond with grace.
We have lost the debate, the Australian people have spoken and we need to honour their will. We should not stand in the way of legislating this change. I noted several months ago - before the survey was announced - that as a pluralist I though that Same Sex Marriage was supported by the majority and as a result should be legislated.
In that previous post I also noted that religious, speech and conscience protections will need to be implemented to protect the freedoms of those who object to the change. However I want to be clear that I agree with Fr Frank Brennan that the most appropriate way forward from this point is to pass the bill (download) that has been proposed by Dean Smith which includes basic protections for churches and religious celebrants. This would allow the will of the Australian people to be respected quickly and allow the law change to be implemented by the end of the year.
Following the passage of that bill, I would argue then would be the time to look at strengthening the protections of religious freedom, conscience and speech - and I would argue the most appropriate way to do that would be through passing a formal bill of rights at the Commonwealth level.
Australia is a pluralist nation (not a secular one) which should be seeking to honour the outcome of this democratic process, while also seeking to ensure ALL Australians have their fundamental freedoms are protected. For me, though, this does not include the right of private businesses like a bakery, with no affiliation with a faith group, to deny service. However it would include the right of the proverbial 'baker' or other individuals to publicly express their religious views without fear for their job, and without fear of being dragged before the courts. It would also include the right of parents to withdraw their children from education programs that are contrary to their religious convictions, and for religious schools, charities etc to continue to promote their religious view on marriage without fear of losing funding or accreditation.
I want to finish by taking this opportunity to .ask those who like me voted no, to show grace in defeat. Today I have already seen comments from people trying to skew the results to say it wasn't a real majority because over 20% didn't cast a vote. This is not the way forward, and all it does is damage the credibility, not of the vote, but of those who put forward such an 'argument'. We lost it is now time to accept it and move on.
As a priest in the church of God, I will continue to teach that marriage, according to the Word of God, is something that can only happen between a man and a woman. I understand that this view will now be different to the legal understanding of marriage in Australia, and I accept that. The only thing I ask is that my right to continue to teach and uphold the traditional view be honoured, just as I will honour the newly established right of same sex couples to be married under law.
The debate about legalising same sex marriage in Australia is still continuing and distracting from other major issues facing our nation. As a priest in the Church of God, I uphold the church's doctrine that marriage is something that can only take place between a man and a woman, however I believe that the time has come for this issue to be settled. We who hold to a traditional understanding of what marriage is have lost the debate in the public square - through the past hateful and hurtful actions of our own churches, through the inability to uphold the values which we advocate and through an inability to convey our message to the people.
I have personally never supported discrimination against gay couples, and have long supported changes to legislation that would have allowed for civil unions or other legal recognition that was equal under law to marriage.
It is my view however, that the vast majority of the population now does support changing the legal definition of marriage to include adults of the same sex, and as somewhat of a libertarian I believe that in a modern pluralist democratic society legislation should reflect the will of the people. For this reason I don't believe that we should be focusing on opposing legislation that would see the Marriage Act changed to allow same sex marriage, however I don't think we should endorse it either. The truth is though it is coming - and we need to learn how to deal with that.
To be clear I believe that for Same Sex marriage to occur there needs to be very strong safeguards put in place - and we should absolutely be arguing for those - religious freedom is where our argument now needs to stand. This includes the right of people to decline to take part in the celebration of a same sex marriage because of religious conviction. I believe there also needs to be safeguards in place to protect the right of organisations which are owned or run by religious organisations to likewise decline to participate. Finally the right of Religious leaders and others to publicly state their traditional view of marriage in opposition to the newly changed legal definition without fear of being dragged through the courts for discrimination, or losing their jobs if they are employed outside of a religious context, must be protected.
My view is also that the only way that this change can be made before the next federal election is to have the plebiscite. The arguments which have been levelled against holding a national poll include that it is non-binding, that it is against the tradition of parliamentary democracy, and finally that it would be too harmful for LGBTI individuals to have a public debate in the lead up to the plebiscite due to the risk of extremist and bigoted views being put forward by the 'no' side.
Firstly, the argument that the plebiscite should be abandoned on the basis that it is not binding is flawed at its core. Whether the plebiscite is binding is irrelevent, because following the plebiscite members will be given a free vote in the parliament in response. Anyone who would reject the will of the people and vote no in such a vote is going to vote no in any vote whether there is a plebiscite or not - and here is the kicker - not only will their revolt against the will of the Australian people be rather risky for them politically, it simply will not change the outcome.
The second argument around Australia being a parliamentary democracy and plebiscites not being a part of that system is again flawed. Throughout the history of parliamentary democracy their have been many plebiscites - they are used generally when their is a contentious issue to be decided, and the parliament wants to properly gauge the will of the people they represent. I agree that having plebiscites on every major issue is a bad idea, however when we are talking about an issue as fundamental as what comprises the most important component of our society - the family unit - I think it was reasonable for the Government to propose the plebiscite as a way forward.
The final, very serious and heart breaking reason often put forward is the danger to LGBTI youth especially if the debate leading to a plebiscite leads to bigoted and hurtful comments and campaigns against the proposed change. Research shows that LGBTI individuals are already at a higher risk of mental illness and suicide, and it is argued this could be the thing that tips many over the edge. This is a major concern, and I share it to an extent. However the idea that we should not have a public debate about issues of major significance is fundamentally flawed.
I wonder for example if those who reject the plebiscite on same sex marriage due to possible harm, also reject having a referendum on recognition of Australia's first peoples in the constitution? There is no group in Australian society with higher suicide rates than our Indigenous population. Given that 11% of the population say that they support One Nation, and also given the racist remarks directed at me and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders pretty well daily on Social Media, and in the real world, it is beyond doubt there will be high levels of racist ranting against any form of recognition when the campaign starts. Given the high levels of mental health issues and the skyrocketing suicide rates in the community, if we follow the logic of same sex marriage advocates to abandon the plebiscite, then we should also abandon any attempt at a referendum on recognition.
However as an Aboriginal man, the grandson of a woman stolen from her parents, I say the referendum needs to happen (following the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart). I know that it will see an increase in hateful rhetoric, but I also know that those who speak in such a hateful way are a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of Australians can talk about it using common sense and decency - I believe the same of the debate about Same Sex Marriage.
I suspect however that one of two things is going to happen. Either the legalisation of same sex marriage will happen before the next election through a private members bill in which Liberal Party MP's and Senators cross the floor - first to have it debated, and then to have it passed. Or it will languish as an issue constantly moving on and off the political agenda and become a political football at the next election where there is the same likelihood of hurtful, misinformed and bigoted comments being made as in any plebiscite.
As I said it is my view that the plebiscite goes ahead, because it is a major issue of significance and because the Government was elected on the understanding that any change to the definition of marriage could only take place after such a vote. However, in the event that it is legalised without the plebiscite, either through members crossing the floor before the election or in a free vote after the election, I believe that it is a change that is coming and which I after much consideration and prayer, I do not oppose (to be clear not opposing something is not the same as endorsing it).
Provided there are real protections for individuals to exercise their religious freedom, speech and expression, I believe that this change will only serve to better reflect the plurality that exists in our nation - and that is one of the blessings of living in a liberal democracy such as ours.
As for Christians who hold to a traditional view of marriage, I would argue that the best way forward for us from here is to actually bear witness to the biblical ideals of marriage, and of the Gospel message of love, forgiveness, redemption and hope in our own lives and relationships - especially in our relationships with LGBTI members of the community.
Some of you may have seen over the past week the controversy surrounding Coopers Brewery and the Bible Society about a short video where two politicians discussed the idea of same sex marriage.
The video was part of the Bible Society’s 200th birthday celebrations. It was designed to encourage people to engage in discussion on significant issues in a civil and respectful manner. Coopers had agreed to make a specially labelled light beer to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society and the video featured the participants “keeping it light” while they discussed the issue with great respect and care while enjoying a beer.
Now all of that seems fairly reasonable doesn’t it? The Bible society as part of its birthday celebrations released a video encouraging people to engage in respectful and caring conversation on major issues… However the response to the video was anything but reasonable.
Almost immediately same sex marriage advocates called for a boycotting of Coopers products. They demanded that pubs and clubs stop stocking Coopers beers—and many agreed. Why were they so outraged? Both men in the video were given equal air time to put forward their case—and even had to say what part of the others view they found most compelling. The Video did not present one view as superior to the other… The outrage came because they dared to even put it forward as something to be debated.
That isn’t a typo—the same sex marriage lobby has decided that not only should those who oppose same sex marriage be bullied into silence, but that even those who think it is an important matter for public discussion and civil and respectful debate should be bullied into submission—dissent will not be tolerated in any form. Anyone who they perceive as even suggesting that there is a discussion to be had must be punished—and so Coopers was punished—dragged through days of hostile media scrutiny and sadly they eventually caved in to the bullying—no doubt fearing for their livelihoods—and in some cases their safety as threats were made. Coopers withdrew its plan to release the commemorative cases of light beer—they disatanced themselves from the Bible Society and they announced they were going to join the group Australian Marriage Equality. The bullies won.
This has been an incredibly sad week in our nation for freedom of thought, speech and expression. It has been a week in which the same sex marriage lobby have shown their true colours as bullies, hypocrites and bigots who demand tolerance and respect on one hand and then bully and coerce those who have not accepted their views on the other.
Please pray for our nation, that we will be able to hold onto the values we value so dearly. Values of freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of thought, expression and freedom of speech. Pray that we don’t become a nation that does not tolerate dissent, and punishes those who don’t agree with the prevailing view of the elites. Pray that we can be a nation that debates important issues with civility, love and compassion—the very things the video promoted.
I also invite you to pray for the victims in all of this—the staff of both Coopers Brewery, and the Bible Society.
This week I wrote to my congregation explaining to them that I uphold the doctrine of the church and believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. I also explained that holding this view does not mean that I hate homosexual couples, it does not mean that I am opposed to them having equal rights under civil law - it simply means that I and those who share my view believe that the term marriage can only ever apply to the lifelong union of a man and a woman.
Some I know will label me a 'homophobe' for expressing this view. Some will say I am being hateful. The truth is though, that I do not hate anyone - not even those who have done me direct emotional and physical harm - so why would I hate homosexuals?
The idea that to disagree with someone over marriage is hateful, is being used as a weapon in the debate by those who support changing the definition to include same sex couples. The argument goes that if you oppose same sex marriage then you are clearly against equal rights for gay people - which means you clearly are a bigot that hates gay people...
Of course saying that we believe that marriage should stay between a man and a woman actually in no way restricts the rights of homosexual couples to enter into lifelong committed and monogamous relationships if they wish to do so. It in no way restricts the ability of government to ensure that gay couples are treated equally under the law - in fact the previous Labor Government already passed legislation at the Commonwealth level to ensure this! That there are still some inequalities being experienced at the State/Territory Level simply means that those jurisdictions should be called upon to enact similar legislation. If this was done then gay couples would be treated 100% equally under the law at all levels of government in Australia - and all without ever changing the fundamental meaning of society's most important institution.
What saying that we believe marriage is between a man and a woman means, is that we understand marriage to be more than simply something people do if they love each other—we understand it to be a special union, between a man and woman, especially given and sanctified by God for the forming of a new family unit and the raising of children. There is no hate here—there is no homophobia, and no-one is saying that homosexual couples should be discriminated against—by all means give a same sex couples equal standing under secular law— even through recognising the relationships as civil partnerships or similar. It is also not a statement about the nature or value of their relationships—Homosexual couples do love each other, they care for each other, and they value their relationships just as highly as heterosexual couples do. They must be shown our love and care and be treated with the dignity deserved by people made in the image of God.
The simple truth however is this; in Traditional Christian understanding Marriage is something that can only take place between a man and a woman, any other relationship, no matter how loving, no matter how caring and valued that relationship is, simply is not and cannot be a marriage. Whilst the secular legal definition may change (and likely will) The Christian understanding revealed through God’s word will not.
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia. Learn more on the About page.