Conservatives in Australia Introduce ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Allowing Sweeping Discrimination Against LGBTQ People

· Updated on May 28, 2018

A sweeping and extreme bill introduced in Australia would allow those with “relevant marriage beliefs” to deny services to same-sex couples should the country vote in favor of marriage equality.

On Monday, Liberal MP James Paterson put forward “conscientious objector” legislation ahead of results being announced in a non-binding plebiscite on same-sex unions. The country is widely expected to vote “Yes.” A recent survey from the Guardian Essential Poll showed that 64 percent of Australians cast a ballot in favor of same-sex marriage, while just 34 percent opposed the freedom to marry for all couples.

Should the “Yes” campaign prevail, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that legislation to legalize same-sex unions would be signed into law by Christmas. One Liberal Party member, Dean Smith, has authored a bill he plans to introduce in Parliament on Thursday, the day after ballots are counted.

Paterson has claimed current proposals for a marriage bill are insufficient, alleging that they would allow “some Australians… to impose their values on others.”

“Religious freedom and speech are important rights,” Paterson has said.

The senator’s draft bill addresses that by offering what Paterson calls a “shared path forward.” The legislation allows caterers, cake makers, florists, photographers, or any other providers to deny services to same-sex weddings without fear of reprisal from the government. It also allows clerks to refuse to certify marriage certificates for same-sex couples, which would allow for Kim Davis-style discrimination across Australia.

The Paterson bill only gets more strident from there.

In addition to protecting the beliefs of anyone “with a traditional view of marriage,” the legislation would permit parents to pull their children from classes that teach views about gender and sexuality which conflict with their faith beliefs. That clause is a strike against Australia’s Safe Schools program, a surprisingly controversial government initiative offering LGBTQ-inclusive resources in schools.

The proposed law would also offer “freedom of speech” protections for any individual that speaks out against same-sex marriage and existing legislation preventing discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Paterson’s policy claims that the enumerated protections are unique to those who espouse “a genuine religious or conscientious belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life,” but the language is extremely broad, as The Guardian points out. The bill “extends to any beliefs that ‘support’ that view.”

Despite the fact that transgender people aren’t on the ballot tomorrow, the legislation also singles them out. It protects the views of anyone who believes that “gender is binary” and “can be identified at birth.”

LGBTQ advocates have pointed out that the Paterson bill could be used to discriminate against non-LGBTQ people, like single mothers or unwed couples.

The bill is likely to find wide support among conservative members of Parliament, including Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi, and Andrew Hastie. Liberal MP Ian Goodenough told Australia’s News Corp. earlier this month that a marriage bill must preserve “parental rights, freedom of speech, and institutional considerations such as curriculum in schools, access to reproductive technology, [and] correctional facilities.”

Fellow Liberal Party member Matt Canavan agrees that the Smith legislation doesn’t “adequately [protect] human rights.” While his bill prevents priests from being forced to officiate weddings that directly conflict with their religious beliefs, Canavan believes a compromise must extend beyond the church walls.

“The right to freedom of belief is held by every Australian, not just those directly involved in church activities,” the conservative told The Australian.

Human rights groups in Australia have universally condemned the Paterson plan.

“This is not a marriage equality bill,” said Equality Campaign representative Anna Brown in a statement. “It’s about enshrining discrimination and taking Australia back decades. Australians are voting to make our country a fairer and more equal place, not to take us back to a time where people can be denied service at a shop.”

“Australians believe in a fair go for all,” she continued. “This bill goes completely against what people have voted for.”

Even despite the wide majority of Australians who claim to have voted in favor of same-sex marriage, it’s difficult to say whether or not they will oppose what LGBTQ people call a “license to discriminate.”

Polling conducted this month by the Equality Campaign found that just 22 percent of respondents believe that service providers should be allowed to refuse same-sex couples. But a separate poll from the Lonergan Research Institute came to the exact opposite conclusion: Half of those surveyed said that people of faith should have the right to deny services to same-sex weddings.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is expected to release the final vote on Wednesday, Nov. 15, although a time has yet to be announced.

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