The question as to whether same sex marriages entered into under Australian civil law can be blessed in an Anglican Church service is one that has generated much disagreement within the church. An important Opinion of the Appellate Tribunal of the Anglican Church of Australia in relation to a question posed by the Diocese of Wangaratta (Primate’s References re Wangaratta Blessing Service, 11 Nov 2020) held that it is lawful for a diocese to approve such a formal blessing. I have now contributed a chapter to a book of essays prepared for the consideration of the forthcoming General Synod discussing the issue, analysing the Majority Opinion and its implications. The chapter is available for download here, for those who are interested. I conclude, in brief, that as a matter of internal Anglican doctrine, the decision is contrary to the “doctrine of the Church”, which finds its ultimate source in the Bible. The Majority Opinion takes a too narrow view of the word “doctrine”, in my view. I suggest that this may have consequences outside the church:
unfortunately the narrow view taken by the Majority Opinion of the Appellate Tribunal may encourage a narrow view of the word to be taken by [secular] courts in the future, with the result that clauses protecting religious freedom may be unduly read down.At p 47.
From the perspective of the general law of Australia, a church which declined to bless a same sex marriage might be accused of “sexual orientation” discrimination if they would offer such a blessing to a heterosexual couple. But balancing clauses under discrimination law would seem to have the effect that such a decision would not amount to unlawful discrimination, if the decision was:
(d) [an] act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion. Section 56, Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW)
(See also the similar provision in s 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).)
It seems to me to be fairly clear that the “doctrines” of the Anglican Church would prevent the blessing of a same sex marriage. Indeed, the General Synod of the church said as much in a 2017 resolution:
the doctrine of our church, in line with traditional Christian teaching, is that marriage is an exclusive and lifelong union of a man and a woman (emphasis added)See ‘MARRIAGE, SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND THE BLESSING OF SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS’, adopted 7 Sept, 2017, at https://anglican.org.au/the-general-synod/search-resolutions-of-gs-sessions/?sid=2827
But the Majority Opinion of the Appellate Tribunal might cast some doubt on that proposition, and as a result needs urgent consideration by the next General Synod.
While Sikh weddings will often feature the symbolic dagger known as the “kirpan”, that is not the connection I am writing about. In NSW at the moment both weddings in general, and kirpans worn by school students, have featured in debates about religious freedom. For weddings, those committed to religious beliefs are deeply concerned that all weddings are banned under COVID-19 provisions. In relation to the kirpan, I have written previously about a ban on these items applied to school students and the problems that raised for observant Sikh students. Both of these issues provide an example of what is called “indirect discrimination” on the basis of religion. The kirpan ban seems to have recently been sensibly modified to take into account concerns of the Sikh community. I argue here that the wedding ban should be approached in a similar way, and the deep-seated concerns of believers in NSW met by adjusting the current rules to allow the small number of people most directly involved to gather for weddings.
This week the High Court of Australia handed down a fascinating decision on the question as to whether a sperm donor can be recognised as the legal parent of a child born through artificial insemination. In Masson v Parsons  HCA 21 (19 June 2019) the court ruled that the answer was “Yes”. While the case doesn’t directly involve “law and religion” issues, the question of parental status in assisted reproduction methods is one of great interest in religious communities, so it seems worthwhile to set out the reasoning of the court. And as I will aim to show, there is an interesting possible sideline to the court’s decision which may impact other “status” questions which arise under Australian law, which may be significant for religious views on matters such as marriage and sexual identity.
Following my previous post giving comments on Recommendations 1, 5-8 and 15 of the Ruddock Report and the Government Response, I will comment here on another set of recommendations (Recs 2-4, 9-12) and the likely outcome. Comments on recommendations 13-14, and 16-20, will (hopefully) be made in Part 3!
Today the Rev the Hon Fred Nile, for the Christian Democrat Party, introduced a Bill to add “religious beliefs or religious activities” into NSW legislation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms) Bill 2018 will add new Parts 3B and 5A into the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) (“ADA”), making it unlawful in various areas to discriminate on the grounds of religion, or to subject religious bodies to a detriment. The proposals will also make it unlawful to penalise someone for holding views on marriage as the union of a man or a woman, or for holding the view that there are only two genders.
The Religious Freedom Review Panel, chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, has invited submissions from all Australians on the protection of religious freedom in Australia. Submissions are being accepted until 14 February 2018. I attach a copy of my submission here: Submission on Religious Freedom Protection for RF Review Expert Panel (with permission of the Review Panel), and one of its attachments: Foster Attachment 1- Religious Freedom in Australia overview 2017. (There is a second attachment which I will release later, as it is a copy of a paper I am presenting at a conference in a couple of weeks.) Those who are interested in the area may find it helpful to see the sort of topics that I think ought to be addressed.
With the commencement of the legislation adopting same-sex marriage for Australia today, 9 December, it seems worthwhile to note some more implications, following my initial comments on the change. The two I would like to address here are the changes to the “monitum”, the summary of Australian marriage law required to be recited by some celebrants; and the possible issues surrounding what I will call “rogue priests”, clergy in one of the mainstream Christian denominations who may wish to solemnise same-sex marriages when their denomination adheres to the historic Christian position that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
Legislation re-defining marriage to include same sex couples passed its final third reading stage in the Commonwealth House of Representatives this evening Australian time, December 7. The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 will soon become law when it receives the Royal Assent. In this post I want to start exploring some immediate implications for religious freedom and other “law and religion” issues.
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.
Outrage has erupted in the press and in Parliament over the Exposure Draft of a Bill designed to implement a possible “Yes” vote in the same-sex marriage survey. Senator James Paterson, a Liberal Party member who personally supports same sex marriage, has released a Draft Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017 designed to effect this change, but also to provide protection for the religious freedom of those whose faith will not allow them to approve it. But the Bill has been excoriated as “legalising homophobic discrimination” (Senator Hinch, in a question to the Attorney-General, Senate Hansard, 14 Nov 2017, p 21 of draft proceedings), and as a “licence to discriminate” (Senator Wong, as reported by the ABC.)
I think these are outrageous over-statements, and misrepresent the nature of the Bill. I don’t agree with every line of the Paterson Bill, but I think it is a perfectly reasonable attempt to provide an appropriate balance of the rights involved, and should be supported if Australians vote to change the law of marriage in this way.