27 January 2017

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese

All members of religious groups deserve the right to not participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies if they hold a traditional view of marriage, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has told a Senate inquiry.

At the beginning of the year, the ACBC made a submission to a Senate select committee which was tasked with examining draft 'exemptions' for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious groups so they would not have to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies if the law was changed to redefine marriage.

The submission, a copy of which is available on the ACBC website, addresses proposed amendments to the Marriage Act which would accommodate religious freedom by providing narrow 'exceptions' for ministers of religion, civil marriage celebrants and religious organisations so that they might decline to participate in a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple.

Notably, there is no proposal to allow wedding service providers like bakers, photographers or florists to decline to provide their artistic services for a same-sex wedding.

But in the submission, the ACBC made the point that religious freedoms belong to everyone, not just clergy and those employed in religious institutions, and that true protection of religious freedom involves not only the freedom to worship, but the freedom of an individual to live in accordance with their beliefs:

"Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right.  Its existence and importance is acknowledged in the Australian Constitution, in the common law, and in international covenants to which Australia is a signatory.  It is a freedom which arises from a fundamental and constitutive attribute of being human: the search for a truth and meaning greater than ourselves, which shows us how to live good and fulfilling lives.  For these reasons, freedom of religion must not be ignored, treated with embarrassment or suspicion by policy and decision makers, or read down and so narrowly interpreted that it is reduced to mean nothing more than freedom of worship within the confines of places of worship."

After receiving the ACBC submission, the Senate Select Committee invited the ACBC to a public hearing to discuss issues of religious freedom.

Prior to those hearing, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, chair of the ACBC's Commission for Family, Youth and Life, commented on the impact for "ordinary" people:

"Changing the definition of marriage would have an impact on all the members of the Catholic Church, but perhaps the most significant impact would be on ordinary parishioners trying to live their Catholic faith in their daily lives," he said.

"So while the ACBC appreciates the basic protections offered, it must acknowledge that there are no protections offered for the vast majority of the faithful who wish to continue to practice their beliefs.

"People should be free to decline to endorse by participation, activities or ceremonies that are contrary to their beliefs. For example, people may decline to involve their businesses in activities that they consider may be harmful to the community or which may be harmful to the environment. Likewise, in the case of same-sex marriage, people with a conscientious objection should be free to decline to be involved, including where their business is approached to provide services.

"The point at issue when services are declined is not the sexual orientation of the person involved: Christians and their businesses serve people of all backgrounds without question every day. The issue is whether they wish to endorse someone else's activity or belief by providing marriage counselling and preparation, a wedding reception venue, or some other support for a 'same-sex wedding' ceremony or celebration.

"If religious liberty is not given greater support than the minimal exemptions allowed, any redefinition of marriage in law is very likely to infringe upon the right of faith-based schools to choose staff that accord with their beliefs and mission, and upon the right of parents and families to choose a school that accords with their beliefs and best suits their child."

On Tuesday, 24 January, Bishop Peter Comensoli appeared before the Senate Select Committee in Sydney to answer questions about the ACBC's submission.  Bishop Comensoli began his testimony by affirming the equal dignity of each human being:

"Each and every person, without exception, deserves the right to their dignity.  For this reason, every person, no matter what their sexual orientation, is to be respected. For a Christian like me, this fundamental respect further demands an uncompromising commitment of love, mercy and justice," he said.

He spoke about the need to balance the right for people to be free from unjust discrimination with the right for everyone to live in accordance with their beliefs:

"Every human right needs to be protected. At times there is going to be a need to find a balance between possible competing rights... to find ways in which those rights are all protected but done in a way that balances between them.  It is not a matter of disbanding or undermining a particular right so that another right might be uplifted.  Somehow all the rights need to be held together."

The importance of Bishop Comensoli's plea for a balancing of rights became clear when, later that morning, Dr Sharon Dane, who conducted Australia's largest ever survey of LGBTI attitudes towards protection of religious freedom in relation to same-sex marriage, told the Committee that 59 percent of those surveyed did not believe that ministers of religion should be allowed to refuse to celebrate a same-sex wedding.

On Tuesday afternoon, Archbishop Julian Porteous spoke to the Committee about his experience of being taken to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission for distributing the pastoral letter, Don't Mess with Marriage, in his Archdiocese.

The Select Committee on Same-Sex Marriage is expected to report on 13 February 2017.

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