There have been a number of “wedding industry” religious freedom cases arising in the United States and the UK over the last few years. On 28 December 2017 the Oregon Court of Appeals, in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (CA Or; Dec 28, 2017, — P.3d —-, 2017 WL 6613356; 289 Or App 507 (2017)) upheld a $135,000 fine levied on the Kleins, wedding cake makers, for declining to make a cake for the wedding of Rachel and Laurel Bowmen-Cryer. The case is another example of religious freedom (and, arguably, freedom of speech) being over-ridden in the name of “dignitary harm” to same-sex couples. It is a good example of the issues being presented to the current Ruddock Inquiry into Religious Freedom being conducted in Australia at the moment.
Australia is in the middle of a debate as to the extent to which religious freedom rights should be accommodated in legislation introducing “same sex marriage” (SSM). Those who object to this idea tell us that:
Christian conservatives – following the lead of their counterparts in the United States – seek to use freedom of religion to justify discrimination against members of the LGBTQI community. This agenda is now being pursued under the guise of the debate for a marriage equality bill. (“After the yes vote, let’s not remove one inequality and replace it with another”The Guardian online, 22 Nov 2017)
The word “discrimination” is a notoriously slippery one, and I would like to challenge the view that recognising religion freedom in changing marriage laws amounts to unjustified discrimination.
A recent UK court decision upheld the decision of University authorities to remove a student, Felix Ngole, from a post-graduate Social Work course, because of views he had expressed in a public social media forum about the Bible’s view on homosexuality. In my opinion the decision is a shocking breach of principles governing both religious freedom and freedom of speech, and should be over-turned as soon as possible. For Australian readers, it is also a salutary reminder that when the law on marriage changes, it becomes harder to protect religious and other freedoms.
The Northern Territory government has released a discussion paper called Modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act (Sept 2017). It invites comments by 3 December 2017. You can almost get the tone of the paper from the title! After all, who in this fast-changing age could oppose anything called “modernisation”? But there are a number of concerning recommendations and comments made from the law and religion perspective, and there are some real doubts whether the proposals properly reflect religious freedom principles.
My colleague Dr Alex Deagon from QUT has graciously provided a guest blog post in which he outlines his comments on two major concerns with the proposals to amend the Act. Those who are interested in the interaction of discrimination law and religious freedom should find them very helpful, and may wish to make their own comments in response to the discussion paper. There are other controversial proposals in the paper which may be the subject of future posts.
In the context of the current postal survey on changing the law of marriage in Australia, press reports in the last few days indicate that a contractor who had been working for an ACT-based children’s entertainment business has lost her position solely due to her indication of support for a “No” vote in the current postal survey on the issue being conducted in Australia. (See here for a detailed report on the incident quoting both sides.)
It seems worth commenting on the legal implications of the decision to terminate the contractor, especially in light of the “Safeguards” legislation that was recently passed by the Federal Parliament, and on which I recently posted.
Australia is involved in a debate about whether same sex marriage should be introduced. The question is being put to the electors in the form of a voluntary postal survey, the question in which is simply: “Should the law be changed to allow same sex couples to marry?”
The original intention of the current Government had been to put this question to the people of Australia in a compulsory plebiscite. This option being defeated twice in Parliament, the postal survey has been designed to be run without explicit authorising legislation. However, once it was decided that the survey would proceed, concerns were expressed that the debate might contain misleading and deceptive advertising, which would usually have been dealt with under the electoral laws (but since the survey was not being run under those laws, no such protections applied for the survey.) In addition, concerns were expressed about hateful and harmful speech on both side of the debate.
In response to these concerns, the Commonwealth Parliament today (in a rare example of swift bipartisan action) saw the introduction and enactment of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017 (which has now received the Royal Assent, and become Act No 96 of 2017). The Act will come into operation on Thursday 14 September, 2017 (tomorrow, as I write.)
In an encouraging development, the Kentucky Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court decision that the action of a Christian small business owner, in declining to print a T-shirt celebrating “Gay Pride”, is not unlawful. This case is one of a number that have raised issues about the freedom of those with religious convictions that homosexual behaviour is wrong, to decline to provide services in support of the opposite view. It is a significant decision which may influence the course of similar cases elsewhere.