One popular metaphor used by No campaigners is that of the Trojan horse. Same-sex marriage will, the metaphor suggests, introduce all kinds of more sinister problems – medical board petitions, hate-f*#king, gender fluidity, HRC complaints, Special Persons Day and Safe Schools among others.
But these things are not lying silently sequestered inside a festive-looking wooden horse, ready to pop out on 15 November. They are in plain sight. Kids are already being induced to change gender. Special Persons Day is already a thing in the Woolies bakery. Petitions are circulating to have dissenting doctors de-registered. Boys are told it’s fine to show up to school in a dress. Regardless of which side wins in the plebiscite, or indeed whether the law is eventually changed, these things exist. In the interests of accuracy, perhaps they should be portrayed as malevolent soldiers proudly accompanying the gaily-decorated horse to the gates of Troy – and being admitted, even while the pony remains outside.
But there is one real Trojan horse in all this. Absent a government-backed draft bill, we cannot know what impact SSM will have on religious freedom (and by extension, freedoms of speech, conscience, and association, as well). The plebiscite question – should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? – sounds reasonably straightforward, and to most people it probably is. But it is abstract and sentimental without concrete legislation as to what changes are proposed to the Marriage Act, and to other state and federal laws. Even supporters of SSM have expressed to me their reservations about voting Yes because they have no idea what it will mean for them, and for the freedoms they enjoy.
One of the things they have been assuring us is that no minister of religion will be forced to ordain SSM. Certainly that protection was given prominence in the draft bill from erstwhile freedom enthusiasts Senator Dean Smith and Tim Wilson MP. But while the bill purported to ‘expand’ religious freedom, it is difficult to imagine a narrower reading of the term. Religious freedom is about more than just who does what at a wedding.
As I write, there are two Presbyterian pastors before what is now known as Equal Opportunity Tasmania, for speaking and writing about an orthodox and biblical view of marriage. In 2015 Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania Julian Porteous appeared before the same quango after his diocese distributed the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference booklet which taught, unsurprisingly, the traditional Catholic doctrine on marriage. All three of these men were involved in what can only be described as routine religious ministry in accordance with their ordination vows and consciences. You may think ‘the law [should] be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry’ but is it really good for the country to have a never-ending procession of clergy-defendants?
The disturbing trend of transgendered Greens candidates suing bishops notwithstanding, all ministers know that they themselves are not really on the front line of the religious freedom battles. Every Sunday, Christian pastors send out the faithful to fight those fights – even for those who have no faith. One atheist parent at the Protestant school where I’m a director said she has ‘no issue with gay people getting married’ but is terrified that religious schools might not be able to discriminate ‘on the basis of belief’.
Belief matters, not just to prelates and pastors, but to ordinary Australians. Even unreligious ones. You don’t need to be a scholar of the American First Amendment to know that freedom of religion is inextricably connected to the freedoms of speech, association and conscience. And you don’t need to read law reports to realise that all four of these were under threat during this debate, even before the plebiscite forms were posted.
So what might now jump out of the Trojan horse if SSM becomes legal? The most obvious consequence is small business owners who oppose it will be sued. Why obvious? Because around the world there have been dozens of cases where legal SSM has precipitated this kind of legal and administrative action. It has become a sport. Smith and Wilson’s bill provides religious freedom protection for such service providers connected to a religious institution. You know all those churches and synagogues with wholly owned subsidiary flower shops and bakeries? No, me neither. And unless you want a Special Bride’s Day chocolate mud for your special bride’s day, couples tend to avoid Big Grocery as well, with most wedding industry businesses being sole trader or family-owned operations. Even bakers not in the wedding game have been told: make a pro-SSM cake or else.
Another obvious consequence is for freedom of speech. The opposition has already foreshadowed an 18C-esque provision to capture anything a gay person might find insulting or offensive, although our craven Liberal government would probably claim it as their own, given the chance. Perhaps the HRC could organise a cadaver trial of Bill Leak for his prescient ‘Waffen SSM’ cartoon. Public opinion is and was with Leak: a functioning democracy must allow for robust free speech, even if a little off-colour.
And what about my little Protestant school? It’s student population includes Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalist, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Coptic, atheist, and Muslim kids, and parents have to pay for the privilege of not going to the public school less than 300m away. Why do they do it? Because they believe, for various reasons, that there’s value in a distinctively Christian education, where every staff member from the principal down is a Christian, and where every child receives Bible teaching according to a certain Protestant understanding. Virtue-signalling local councils have already started to bully church groups who advocate a No vote, and this will undoubtedly increase if they have the official definition of marriage on their side. But why would governments stop there? School funding, accreditation, and registration would be the obvious avenues of coercive power that they might use to stop children associating with No-sayers.
The federal government has had every opportunity to present draft legislation, or at least a concrete proposal as to how it intends to protect religious freedom, before the distribution of survey forms. Yet all it has done so far is assure us that things would be worse under Labor, although I’m not even sure that’s true. In any case, when it comes to same-sex marriage, there is only one Trojan horse. It’s the issue of freedom – religious, speech, conscience, and association – and the government must address it now.
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