‘Yes’ 62%, ‘No’ 38%

So Why Does the No Campaign Think It Won?

Marriage Equality and the Rise of the Religious Right

It is as if we are living in a parallel universe. The Yes vote won Turnbull’s political-fix odious survey by a massive majority, but the No vote activists are bleating about how heterosexual Australia is being victimised by the LGBTIQ community. WTF? Now all of a sudden, marriage equality is no longer about marriage, it’s about freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and parental rights in the education system. As I said — WTF?

Take care Australia, we are seeing the rise of the Religious Right.

And if you want to see how that story ends, just take a look at America.

The Australia of the last few years has seen religious fundamentalism attempt to show its might by pushing its way to the head of the pack in political and social issues. In our everyday life, it’s not so much radical jihadism in Australia, as it is rabid evangelical fundamentalism. We’ve seen this in issues such as religious education in schools, school chaplaincy programs, occasionally abortion, and perhaps no-where more prominently than in the debate over marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. We have even seen the unedifying spectacle of leaders of Government and Opposition making the three-yearly pilgrimage to the conference of the Australian Christian Lobby to spruik a sanitised message for them in the hope they will support them publicly; as though the ACL is the repository of all things Christian and represents the faith across Australia — which it doesn’t — not even remotely!

Whatever happened to the idea of separation of church and state? Isn’t that supposed to be enshrined in Australian public life for the good of the nation? After all, haven’t we been able to avoid most of the ugly and dangerous religious squabbles of Europe and elsewhere precisely because of this separation?

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution specifically refers to religion and allows for four tenets:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

It’s pretty great, isn’t it. It draws on, and outdoes I think, America’s First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. While America’s is specific in denying the right of a religion to be the ‘established’ or official religion of the land and denying the right of a government to stop people exercising their right to religious freedom, it stops there. Australia’s on the other hand goes a little further explicitly:

  • No established religion
  • No government can legislate to impose any religious observance
  • No government can legislate to prohibit the free exercise of religious observance
  • No religious test or benchmark for holding any public office.

It is therefore not uncommon to hear some say that because of these sharply-focused four delimitations, that the separation of church and state is enshrined in our Constitution. In fact, such a doctrine is not enshrined in the Constitution and the High Court has explicitly said so in the State Aid or Defence of Government Schools case in 1981.

Justice Sir Ronald Wilson said:

The fact is that s.116 is a denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth and no more … The provision therefore cannot answer the description of a law which guarantees within Australia the separation of church and state.

Justice Sir Ninian Stephen said s.116:

… cannot readily be viewed as a repository of some broad statement of principle concerning the separation of church and state, from which may be distilled the detailed consequences of such separation.

So, s116 is merely a “denial of legislative power”, and a welcome one, but not a “broad statement of principle”, a fleshed-out doctrine of separation of church and state. But there is a loose convention of behaviour that has been followed in Australia because of this Constitutional general attitude. And it is essential that we keep that convention in mind when tackling social issues, especially around LGBTIQ rights. Why especially LGBTIQ rights? Because historically, the Christian Church has been the dominant oppressor of gay people for two thousand years, its teachings that we are sinful, unnatural, wicked reprobates seeping into the laws and cultures of nations the world over.

While the majority of Australia’s individual Christians voted Yes in the survey, sadly the official positions of their churches saw them yet again lined up against LGBTIQ people as they have historically done down through the ages. When you’ve got fundamentalists among them, you know you need to be on the lookout lest they gain a foothold on the Australian psyche and start winding back the clock to the 1960s.

For me, I want the clergy out of people’s bedrooms and out of people’s hearts. I want adults to be free to make their own decisions about their own personal lives and living arrangements and not have to worry about breaking some church-influenced law. I am not a libertarian, but in this, yes, I want small government and small church.

This is why I think s116 of the Constitution is a welcome statement of delimitation. I believe that both the church and the legislature work best when they do not have jurisdiction over the other. Allow me to refine that. I like the fact that people can go to church or the mosque or the temple without fear or interference from the Government. I like the fact they can do that without having to look over their shoulder to see who’s following them. But I also like the fact that Australian governments have the freedom to legislate for the common good and do not have to do so from any religious premise or any sacred text. Thus, though Fred Nile and more latterly Lyle Shelton insist on calling Australia a Christian country, and do so only because of our historical connections, in fact and in law, we are not. And we shouldn’t be. We are not a Christian country in law. And we are not a Christian country in the lived experience of this multi-cultural, multi-faith secular land. There is no established religion in Australia. While Nile and Shelton might be antidisestablishmentarians, I certainly am not.

Australia has never wanted a theocracy, a country headed up by clerics and priests. In fact, ever since the days of Samuel Marsden ‘the flogging parson’ of early colonial NSW times, we have had a distinct mistrust of the clergy and the Church. In more recent times with the systemic ecclesiastical assault and rape of children, the Church could not have destroyed trust in its institutions and its people more completely had they purposely set out to. Australians have watched the world. We know what theocracy looks like, both historically and currently. We’ve seen it at work in our own time in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Clerics run the show, establish the culture and tell everyone what is acceptable thought and behaviour and what is not and applying penalties and punishments for infringements. And such religious authority finds the personal lives of its citizenry by far and away the easiest thing to legislate: gender, sexuality, marriage, children, and relationships. These are the first targets. Lots of rules and laws around this stuff. And lots of punishments because of those rules.

Marriage equality in Australia is the big issue right now where the maintenance of separation of church and state is absolutely crucial. Perhaps no other factor has caused the LGBTIQ community so much distress and pain as the ‘official’ Christian Church. Now I hasten to qualify that statement. Individual Christian folk, as I said earlier, voted Yes in majority numbers. And there are denominational churches in Australia too that are progressive in their theology, understand the science of human sexuality and welcome LGBTIQ people into their communities wholeheartedly and even into their ordained ministry. The Church in Australia is a diverse group. It is certainly not a homogeneous entity with one set of beliefs and praxis. Rather, it is a multitude of beliefs around the centrality of Christ with huge differences in theology as well as style and structure of liturgy.

However, one section of this group is the loudest and the most strident, and for me as a result of what I see as arrogance, the most objectionable. In their everyday vernacular, they would call themselves ‘Bible-believing Christians’ but others would call them ‘evangelical fundamentalists’, a group that represents for me now, all that is wrong with religion. With an emphasis on a sola scriptura model of Scripture that is virtually Bibliolatry and a model of interpretation of the texts that is face-value, literalist, and conservative, this group rejects scholarship that differs from their traditional view and is bellicose with this way of using the Bible. Such people possess a willingness to use it as a weapon against dissenters and to pass hasty judgment on all while ignoring and discarding any sense of the lived experience of people. This crowd in times past were called the ‘holy rollers’, the ‘God-botherers’, the ‘Bible bashers’ and Australians have traditionally steered well clear of them. These days we call them the Australian Christian Lobby and believers of their ilk.

There is absolutely no truth other than their truth about all matters and especially it would seem, about gay sexuality. They are not just oppositional to marriage equality but belligerently so. I have come to conclude after engaging them over the last few years on matters gay that they trichotomise the world, ie., they divide it into three groups:

  • real Christians (them),
  • false fake Christians (others who profess Christian spirituality but who differ from their model)
  • the unsaved (ever other human being in the world that lives or who has ever lived or who will ever live who doesn’t profess a particular kind of salvation experience).

And there is no budging them from this. They will go down with the ship on this one. Jesus himself could appear before them and say, “hey guys, you haven’t quite got it right” and they wouldn’t listen. They are so rusted on to this model which has the Bible as their single and only argument on any issue that they appear to me to be totally lacking any insight as to how ridiculous, how absurd, how offensive, how rude, and how arrogant they usually sound.

So their view of gay marriage? Totally and completely against it and always will be. Hell will freeze over before they give a millimetre on this. They will never agree to marriage equality because they will never ever accept gay sexuality as being a valid life. Let me repeat what I have oft repeated in other articles. For them, a gay sexuality is unequivocally and without the slightest shred of doubt: a sin, a rejection of God, a repudiation of all things Godly and holy, selfish, indulgent, against the order of nature, a punishment by God, and deserving of eternal punishment, “for such as these will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” It is a choice and a reprehensible lifestyle. And because of this, they see our relationships as counterfeit, not real love, fake, based in lust or deviancy and therefore, totally inferior to straight relationships. They will quote you chapter and verse to prove every word they say. They will also ignore every argument against this model because of their Bible and the way they see it and use it. They will pull out the six or so passages that purportedly speak of homosexuality; the clobber passages as they are known in the United States, the sledge-hammer passages as I called them in Being Gay Being Christian. They will ignore all science, all psychology, all biology, all genetics, all anthropology, all sociology, all history, all scholarship. Being gay is a sin. Its’ just the Bible. Only the Bible.

When you open up the civil rights of the LGBTIQ community to a populist vote and give the implacable enemies of gay sexuality the imprimatur of a government-designed debate, you know you’re going to be in trouble. This debate has been anything but a respectful debate; a descriptor the Prime Minister disingenuously used of it more than once. The concept of Australia talking about marriage equality to me is perfectly acceptable. But putting a minority group’s civil rights, our lives and relationships, up for public evaluation and a vote was not. It was immoral, especially since we already knew the statistics for years. The numbers in the final vote were dead on what the polls had been describing for years. And at a cost of over $100 million.

Now we have to come up with suitable words for the legislation. But let’s do that based on the focus of the legislation, ie., the extending of civil marriage rights to same sex couples. Let’s not do it on religious grounds. This is not a religious question, despite fundamentalists declaring that it is. Half of them believe gay sexuality is literally a demonic force having its sway over the land and inviting the judgment of God. Seriously. But no, we are not talking about religious ceremonies or religious observance being affected in any way. We are talking about gay people having the right to marry their partners in authorised civil ceremonies, as do 75% of heterosexual Australians right now, and having their duly solemnised relationship affirmed by society represented by their family and friends. That’s all. That’s it. It’s hardly the apocalypse.

But the No side fundamentalists believe against all the laws of mathematics that, despite their numbers in the survey, 38%, they won. In some post-survey delusion, they see their 38% makes them the controllers of the marriage equality legislation. They are now wanting to ensure new extensions of religious freedoms are part of a new marriage act. ‘Religious freedom’ is code for having the ability to discriminate against LGBTIQ people with impunity. What they don’t seem to understand is the concept of losing. It was a vote they insisted on having. They argued it predominantly on the grounds of religious freedom. It was a vote they lost. But they still want to call the shots regardless. They are now casting themselves as victims.

I think Australia right now needs to have a really good think about what kind of country we want. It seems to me that the vast majority of Australian voters want the country to be a generous secular country, with no established religion, where people are free to worship as they deem fit, where people are treated equally, where the rule of law governs the land and where the law is universal, ie., it applies to everyone and everyone benefits. Winding back anti-discrimination laws as the fundamentalists want to do for gay people runs fundamentally against the spirit and history of this country. That kind of country where it’s now ok to segregate gay people, to treat LGBTIQ people differently, puts us back to 1960s Alabama, “we don’t serve your kind here” and “get to the back of the bus Rosa Parks.”

Denying a commercial transaction to a gay couple would demean them by any objective standard. They would feel belittled and humiliated. It would be disgraceful if it were done in the name of God. Talk about driving people away from your Gospel. Bigotry comes in all shapes and sizes and one of them is religious bigotry. Yes, it’s a thing. No, it’s not conviction. It’s bigotry. The fundamentalists are very uncomfortable with that kind of talk. They couldn’t possibly be bigots. They’re just doing the work of the Lord. No, when you segregate a group of human beings and treat them unequally, it’s bigotry. And no matter which, all bigotry is ugly, whether it is based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation. All of it is the basest of human nature. It represents the filth of man’s inhumanity to man. And it can lead to violence and even murder, as we have seen too many times in the LGBTIQ community.

Such an Australia would seem foreign to us. As a people, we enjoy the benefits of secular governance. Not just for some, but for everyone. I don’t think Australians will cop priests or the ACL telling us how to think, what is immoral, that we should not have sex before marriage, that it is wrong to be gay, that it is sick to be transgendered, that you can’t leave a destructive marriage. We have moved on from these church-based rules to an ethic of the human being, where human rights and civil rights trump religious protocols in the agora and in secular life. And this change has become unremarkable.

Regarding the change to marriage, there is enough protection for churches already. We know this. As for civil celebrants, I think they occupy a different space. They exist in a sense so that people can opt not to have a religious ceremony; an excellent thing given the diversity of theological views throughout Australia. If you want a religious ceremony, then go to pastor or priest or minister or cleric of a religion. If you don’t want a religious ceremony, then you can choose a civil celebrant. Civil celebrants are there to officiate the official Australian Government contract between legally consenting adults. There should be no exemption for such celebrants. If they can’t do the job according to the law of the land, they should have the grace to retire. I understand there would only be about 3% of celebrants who would think this way.

The religionists can do what they like in their churches. Most for now will not marry us. But I do think that we will see the day when some churches, not all, will be happy to marry LGBTIQ people too in their beautiful buildings in the future. Some will, some won’t. And some gay people would love that, and some gay people would never engage the Church. Marriage equality legislation should go through the Parliament without fuss or bother, having been voted on with the wishes of the entire electorate manifestly known. The No side and their argument lost.

If the Religious Right are on the rise, then I think Australia needs, not religious protection — because there is ample of that now, but secular protection. I think we need to value our secularity as a precious thing in our land, something that all people, of faith and no faith, benefit from. We should be extremely reluctant to part with our secular governance, in part or in whole, and start down the slippery slope where religious-based laws, which are adhered to freely within the religion, begin to bleed out into the law of the land. Segregating people, even done in the name of God, is ugly and base.

As a gay man and after my extensive experience with the Church, I am the very model of a disestablishmentarian.