This morning the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that there has been a huge turnout in the postal survey on the issue of same-sex marriage. The ABS estimates about a 50% voter turnout so far, and the survey returns do not conclude until mid-November.
While voting in this survey is not compulsory, Australia is one of the few democratic countries where voting for government, local or Federal, is compulsory for its citizens. Australians, then, are used to voting, and the convenience of a postal vote, as opposed to having to go to a voting booth, only makes things easier. The results of the vote don’t automatically mean that same sex marriage is either allowed or disallowed. It is a survey for the government to test the waters on where public opinion lies, or so it would seem.
In my opinion the government’s purpose has been, at best, an opportunistic distraction tactic to draw attention away from other contentious issues (such as the gas shortages for local power needs or failing opinion polls), or at worst a moral cowardice on the part of a government afraid of a voter backlash for backing the wrong horse. But the greater tragedy in our government’s avoidance of ensuring there are safeguards on religious freedom in place, prior to such a vote, is that this process is serving to make this issue much more divisive for Australian society than it needed to be.
Not that the issue is not already a divisive one. There are passionate lines of division because the ‘vote yes’ camp sees it as an issue of equality and justice, so that it sees itself defending the moral high ground. Likewise, those in the ‘vote no’ camp see it as a moral issue and a defence of moral values and principles thus giving it the sense that it is defending the moral high ground as well. But if the government had ensured religious freedom from the beginning it would have never come to the surface in such a polarising and antagonistic way. Given proper religious freedom safeguards, I am sure that many of those who have or will vote ‘no’ would have been happy to see same sex ‘civil’ marriage permitted.
The reason I say this is based on that the fact that marriage has been around a lot longer than Christianity, and has always been a civil law matter because of the change of legal status for people entering a marriage contract. Things changed historically because with the dawn of Christianity, Christian couples who married, given that God was already a part of every other aspect of their lives, wanted God to also be part of their marriage union and so sought a blessing from the Church. When Christianity became the national religion of the Roman Empire around the end of the 4th century, bishops were given the responsibilities and status for civil authorities. They became responsible for the civil as well as religious dimensions of a marriage. It is important to note, however, that it was not until the council of Trent, in 1565, that marriage was defined as a sacrament, requiring a priest and 2 witnesses to be valid. It was just that in ‘Christian countries,’ the norm was that the minister for religion performed the majority of the marriages and handled the civil paperwork in the process.
Thus, in a country like Australia, with Christian foundations due to colonization from Christian England, priests and other ministers of religion, perform the religious ceremony of marriage, but have the responsibility for filling in the civil paperwork and filing it with the Government. In other words, the government has given ministers of religion the authority for the civil legalities of a marriage. There are other countries, however, where these 2 aspects are still separate such that a couple would go to the government office for births, deaths and marriage to apply for a marriage contract, but would go to the Church for the religious ceremony. Of course, in the case of the Catholic Church, the religious ceremony involves a ‘sacramental’ marriage.
The current survey, then, is about same-sex couples seeking the right to have a civil marriage, not a sacramental marriage. As a secular and democratic country, Australia’s citizens have every right to expect equality in this matter. This is quite a separate matter to a sacramental marriage.
A concern for some within our Church, however, might be that if same-sex marriage became legal, and a Church official refused to perform the marriage on grounds of conscience, there would be a case of discrimination to answer for. The fear might be that the Church would be forced to perform same-sex marriages or lose its licence to perform marriages at all. But the reality is that if the Church were put in this position it could simply relinquished its licence to perform the civil marriage. It could not be held liable for refusing same-sex couples a sacramental marriage, which in such a situation would have no legal or civil status in society.
This is where freedom of religion comes into play. The government could either ensure that ministers of religion can continue to perform the civil legalities of a marriage within a religious ceremony and be exempt from having to perform same-sex marriages out of religious freedom of conscience, or, if push came to shove, and the Church relinquished its licence to perform the civil marriage, that religious freedom is retained with the right to perform the sacramental marriage before or after the couple go to a government registry office to obtain the civil marriage contract.
The ‘Safe Schools Program,’ which the ‘no vote’ camp has been using as a scare tactic in its advertising against the yes vote, is a separate issue, but certainly also is a concern in terms of freedom of religion. Unfortunately, the government’s failure to ensure prior safeguards in terms of freedom of religion mean that members of Churches are fearful of losing their rights to practice their faith or bring up their children in the faith as they believe called to do.
This, then, is how the divisiveness of what the government has done plays out: Many who are fighting for the ‘yes’ vote feel persecuted. They feel that for so long they have been in the minority and discriminated against. When they see the advertising by the Coalition for Marriage expressing its fear regarding loss of freedom of religion with the safe schools program, it sounds to them like diverting attention from the main issue. It sounds to them like some tactic to create fear amongst voters over something that is not the main issue. This only ferments further anger, resentment and the feeling of victimization amongst them, eliciting cries of bigotry and injustice.
What they fail to realize is that those who vote ‘no’ for the most part feel that they are, in fact, the minority, not the majority. Following the Royal Commission and the child sex abuse scandal with the clergy, combined with the recent ABS survey results showing Australia becoming more and more a secular country, people of the Christian Churches feel under siege. They fear a further eroding away of their rights and freedom and by no means feel they have power in this situation. When they see the vitriol levelled against them from the ‘yes’ camp and hear the cries of ‘bigot,’ they fear that what they are hearing is that they will be more and more persecuted for desiring to practice their faith. It increases their fear of those promoting the ‘yes’ vote. Sadly those promoting the ‘yes’ vote can’t see that as, stated above, they feel they are the victims in this.
The fear, hate and mistrust this all creates all could have been avoided if the government had done the right thing in the first place and not avoided their responsibility and used this issue as a political football to score points.
For me this is a sad day for our country that, in these uncertain times, needs to be united rather than divided.