The committee embarked on this task cognisant of the deeply held beliefs and aspirations of people engaged in this national debate, regardless of how they view the institution of marriage. Debate surrounding previous bills introduced, and associated inquiries undertaken, into the issue of same-sex marriage have drawn on advice and evidence garnered from key stakeholders and the broader Australian community and have been informed by legal cases and legislative changes across the world. Often this evidence was presented in the context of a contested debate, with stakeholders expounding and defending their positions rather than seeking to engage in a balanced and respectful exploration of the issues at hand.
The committee considers that this inquiry into the Exposure Draft (released by the Attorney-General for consultation alongside the proposed legislation for a same-sex marriage plebiscite) provides an opportunity to consider much of this evidence in a more collegiate and coordinated manner and to identify where there may be areas of agreement, and to better understand and narrow those areas where there are differences of approach.
It is a matter of record that the enabling legislation for a plebiscite was voted down in the Senate. Despite this, the associated Exposure Draft released by the Attorney-General as part of the preparatory work for a proposed plebiscite, was deemed to be a useful vehicle to seek consensus on agreed elements of the proposal, and to better identify the substantive issues that remain contested as a result of people's varying political or philosophical perspectives. It is the hope and intention of the committee that this body of evidence will prove a valuable and instructive foundation, identifying the scope of issues to be addressed by a parliament considering legislative changes to the definition of marriage in this area.
The issues discussed below, and expanded on in the report, have been developed from provisions in the Exposure Draft, from the evidence received through the written submission process, and from the committee's three public hearings. With regard to the evidence, the committee is grateful for the quality of the written submissions and the constructive engagement of all witnesses over the course of the public hearings, despite the very short time frame available to all parties.
In the event that the Parliament passed the Plebiscite Bill, the Government proposed the establishment of a Joint Select Committee to review and report on the Exposure Draft.
The composition of that committee would be as agreed by the Government, the Opposition, and Crossbench parties.
Areas of consensus
There was broad agreement that any future legislation to amend the Marriage Act should ensure religious freedoms are appropriately protected when considering changes that extend access to marriage to all adult couples. In addition, such legislation should exercise caution around the terminology it employs.
The committee notes from evidence from witnesses that if care is taken in describing groups of people and legislative concepts, then opposition to different parts of any future legislation can be more easily avoided.
Two notable examples raised during the inquiry were the terms 'same-sex' in the Short Title of the Exposure Draft and the description of provisions to allow ministers of religion and others to opt out of solemnising same-sex weddings as exemptions.
• In the first example, same-sex couples are unnecessarily singled out, by providing exemptions for situations that are 'not the union of a man and a woman'. For those in support of same-sex marriage, this was seen to increase the perception that this group of people were being discriminated against. For others, this narrow definitional approach failed to protect all aspects of their religious and doctrinal view of marriage.
• In the second example, many submitters voiced concern that the right to have and exercise religious freedom is sometimes considered as an 'exemption'. This labelling of a fundamental right as in some way a departure from the norm concerned many who offered the term 'protection' as more appropriate terminology. Supporters of same-sex marriage generally recognised this concern and agreed that amendments could be made to more positively frame the expression of this right.
In a similar vein, careful drafting to clarify the definitional boundaries of some of the key concepts would go a long way to dispelling some concerns about scope and intent. 'Religious body or religious organisation', as well as 'reasonably incidental to', should be clearly defined as this will determine the providers and the types of goods and services where discrimination will be permitted. Many witnesses held the term 'conscientious belief' lacked definition and could potentially have an unlimited scope. Similarly, the use of the expression ' persons' will enable the inclusion of persons of any sex or gender.
On a general note, the committee observed considerable consensus for a continuation of exemptions for ministers of religion, and for religious celebrants involved in the solemnisation of same-sex marriages.
Areas for further discussion
There were also a number of areas where views differed. These concerned matters contained in the detail of the Exposure Draft and particularly in respect to how competing rights should be balanced in Australian law.
Balancing these rights is the central task for a Parliament's consideration of this legislation. As one witness surmised, 'balancing' does not mean that one right is crushed under the weight of the other. The right to marry; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to equality; and the right to freedom from discrimination are all rights engaged in this debate. The committee heard contrasting views on how these competing rights could be respected. There was broad acknowledgement throughout the inquiry of the importance of striking an appropriate balance between these rights in any future legislative proposal so as to minimise any concerns that may exist in the community. The essential nature of marriage and its role in society is a philosophical discussion and goes to the core of one's identity. This was explored by a number of submitters and witnesses. These different perspectives were practically illustrated in evidence on whether the right to choose to provide services only for the marriages between a man and a woman on the grounds of a religious or conscientious belief is available to individuals as well as members of recognised religious groups. The committee heard evidence from a range of contributors on possible remedies on how these issues could be addressed.
As discussed above, there was consensus in the evidence received that the right to religious freedom should be positively protected. The nature of possible protections will continue to be debated. The committee heard of various potential remedies to this issue, such as an anti-detriment provision or a distinct legislative instrument to protect religious freedom.
Many witnesses submitted that the introduction into the Australian legal context of a protection for freedom of religion was regarded as being most appropriately placed within anti-discrimination legislation. Necessarily, this would require consideration of any future anti-discrimination laws interactions with existing state and territory provisions.
It is however clear that should legislation be enacted to change the definition of marriage, careful attention is required to understand and deliver a balanced outcome that respects the human rights of all Australians if the nation is to continue to be a tolerant and plural society where a diversity of views is not only legal but valued.The Committee summarises 'issues requiring careful consideration' -
Definition of 'marriage'
The committee supports the use of ' people' as an appropriate term to facilitate access to marriage for all Australian adults. An Explanatory Memorandum should confirm that inclusion of this term in the definition of 'marriage' is intended to encompass transgender and intersex persons. This inclusive approach should be reflected also in the title of a bill.
Exemption for ministers of religion
Based on the evidence presented, the committee acknowledges that there is broad agreement for ministers of religion to have a right to refuse to solemnise a marriage that is not in accordance with their religion.
However, the committee notes that some submitters and witnesses did not support legislative exemptions based on a marriage not being the union of a man and woman. The committee considers that such grounds would explicitly discriminate against same-sex couples, while limiting also the doctrinal reasons for discrimination. At the same time, some submitters highlighted that such a provision would effectively limit the current protection for ministers of religion. The committee recognises that section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) (Marriage Act) provides the broadest and strongest protection of religious freedom for ministers of religion. This provision, for example, already allows ministers of religion to refuse to marry people who are divorced, or who have undergone gender transition and legally changed their sex. The committee heard that there are inconsistencies between proposed exemptions in the Exposure Draft and exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (SexDiscrimination Act). In particular, proposed new paragraphs 47(3)(b) and 47B(1)(a) would not be consistent with section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act. The committee considers that the intersection of laws is a complex matter that requires further expert consideration beyond the ambit of the Exposure Draft.
Exemption for marriage celebrants
The committee notes that there is some confusion about marriage celebrants and their current ability to refuse to solemnise a marriage. In addition, the committee acknowledges that Part IV of the Marriage Act is structured in a complex fashion, including in relation to the marriage celebrants category (Subdivision C of Division 1). The committee heard that there are two classes of celebrant within this category, who should be clearly distinguished as civil celebrants or as independent religious celebrants. In particular, the committee proposes the creation of a new Subdivision D (Religious Marriage Celebrants) to accommodate independent religious celebrants.
Having found support for protecting the religious freedom of ministers of religion, the committee believes this principle should be extended to independent religious celebrants in new Subdivision D (Religious Marriage Celebrants) of Division 1 in Part IV of the Marriage Act.
The committee notes that there are a range of views about whether the Marriage Act should provide civil celebrants in general with a right to refuse to solemnise a marriage. The committee considers that such celebrants perform a function on behalf of the state and should be required to uphold Commonwealth law (including anti-discrimination laws). That said, the committee heard that some civil celebrants would feel compromised at having to solemnise a same-sex marriage, if the law were changed. The committee respects this position and proposes the inclusion of these celebrants in new Subdivision D (Religious Marriage Celebrants) of Division 1 in Part IV of the Marriage Act.
Exemption for a religious body or organisation
The committee recognises that there is a range of views on whether a 'religious body or a religious organisation' should have a right to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services for, or 'reasonably incidental to', same-sex marriages. The committee suggests that some of these broad terms should be defined, to properly set out the scope of a protection. For example, would commercial entities owned by religious organisations be entitled to protection? In this regard, the committee notes that the phrase 'reasonably incidental to' needs to connect the provision of goods or services to a marriage ceremony.
The committee notes also that some submitters were of the view that the reference to 'a man and a woman' in proposed paragraph 47B(1)(a) may not be necessary, as paragraph 37(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act already provides an exemption for religious bodies.
International jurisprudence on the introduction of same-sex marriage
The committee notes that evidence presented to the inquiry consistently recognises that, under current human rights instruments and jurisprudence, there have been no decisions that oblige Australia to legislate for same-sex marriage. That said, there has been no suggestion that there are any legal impediments to doing so.
Goods and services
The committee notes that Commonwealth law already allows organisations established for religious purposes to discriminate in the delivery of goods and services, including marriage related services and the hiring of facilities, where this discrimination accords with religious doctrine, tenets or beliefs or is necessary to avoid injury to the susceptibilities of adherents to their religion. However the committee also notes that Australia's obligations under international human rights law apply to individuals as well as groups.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the traveaux préparatoires, the Siracusa Principles and United Nations General Comment together require that there are circumstances where broader considerations can be taken into account.
Whether this principle could be applied to achieve an appropriate balance of rights is worthy of further consideration.
A right to refuse on the grounds of a conscientious belief
The committee notes that providing ministers of religion and civil celebrants with a right to refuse to solemnise a marriage based on 'conscientious belief' was controversial, including due to a lack of precedent under Australian law.
The committee is guided by the limited legal usage of 'conscientious belief' but observes that it would be unprecedented to allow 'conscientious belief' to be used to discriminate against a class of persons. The committee is not inclined to disturb established anti-discrimination law and practice. Overall, the weight of evidence suggests that there are philosophical questions that go to the very definition of religion, marriage, and a democratic society that require full consideration.
In human rights law, the freedom to thought or conscience, or to have a religion or belief, are protected unconditionally, but the manifestation of religion or belief are subject to some limitations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Extending protections in the context of same-sex marriage on conscientious grounds would introduce the complex question of whether the manifestation of a non-religious conscientious belief has the same level of protection as religious belief under international human rights law in this specific area.
The committee notes international authority that equal protection is afforded to conscience, and any attempt to differentiate on the rights of an individual based on conscience vs religion may be contested (noting that as far as the committee is aware, this has been considered in the courts). However the weight of evidence received in this inquiry suggests there are schools of thought that go to the very definition of religion, marriage, and a democratic society that require full consideration.
A broader protection of the right to freedom of conscience and religion
The committee is cognisant of previous attempts to reform federal anti-discrimination law. Such reforms are unavoidably complex, requiring expert consideration of international human rights obligations and federal, state and territory laws, as well as relevant jurisprudence. While the Australian Government has progressed some reform on a case-by-case basis, the committee considers that broader reform should be reconsidered to advance protections for religious freedom.
In the short term, the evidence supported the need to enhance current protections for religious freedom. The committee suggests that this could most appropriately be achieved through the inclusion of 'religious belief' as a protected attribute in federal anti-discrimination law. However, in future, the committee considers that the concept of a 'no detriment' clause could be further examined.