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.
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.
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.)
I am presenting a paper on this topic at the Freedom for Faith “Freedom17” conference in Canberra on Wednesday June 14. The paper is available here: Protecting Religious Freedom in Australia Through Legislative Balancing Clauses. It aims to review all the relevant clauses in discrimination laws in Australia (Commonwealth, State and Territories) which balance religious freedom with the right not to be discriminated against. (If I have missed any, please feel free to let me know!) It also reviews the relevant balancing clauses which were proposed in the Exposure Draft Bill released by the Federal Government last year as an example of how same sex marriage might be recognised. Finally, it explores circumstances in which some of the State and Territory discrimination laws might be invalid, where they provide narrower religious freedom protection than the Commonwealth law does.
In a very significant decision with wide-reaching Constitutional implications, the NSW Court of Appeal in Burns v Corbett; Gaynor v Burns  NSWCA 3 (3 Feb 2017) has overturned two findings of “homosexual vilification” made by a NSW Tribunal against residents of Queensland and Victoria. The complainant in both cases, Mr Garry Burns, alleged that Mr Gaynor and Ms Corbett had breached s 149ZT of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 by committing public acts which vilified homosexuals. The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) had made orders against both defendants. In this appeal the NSW Court of Appeal rules that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction to make such orders.
While the specific allegations involved vilification on the grounds of sexual orientation, the cases are significant for religious freedom in two ways. One is that such complaints, if made against persons or organisations with religious beliefs on the topic of homosexuality, may be subject to specific balancing clauses designed to accommodate religious freedom. If a resident of one State of Australia may be sued under such a law from any other State in the country, then the standard of protection of religious freedom will be reduced to the lowest common denominator around the country. The second reason that the case is important is that some states have specific religious “vilification” laws, and again if actions under such laws can be taken against residents of other States this may risk reducing the protection given to religious freedom across the whole country.
The second development I want to briefly note today is a decision of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Sisalem v The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd  VCAT 1197 (19 July 2016). This is an important and helpful decision, in my opinion, supporting free speech on religiously related issues.
Two recent news items raised interesting issues of free speech about religion and its legal consequences. One was a comment by Mr Peter FitzSimons; the other a report about an “anti-Muslim” banner being flown at a football game.
1. Peter FitzSimons
Peter FitzSimons, sports and general social commentator, is well known in Australia for his opposition to religion generally. In two articles this week he commented on the decision of a Mormon rugby league footballer, Will Hopoate, not to play or train on Sundays on the basis of his religious convictions about observing the Sabbath: see “Join me on a walk through the minefield of Will Hopoate’s decision not to play NRL on Sundays” (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2016); and “The questions thrown up by Will Hopoate’s decision not to play in the NRL on Sundays” (SMH, 2 April 2016).