Marriage Compromise: Mission Possible

Ideal for a 2nd class wedding. pic: Jared Hansen

Should LGBTI compromise on “religious exemptions” to win over opponents, accepting less than full, Not Quite Right, marriages

Now that Parliament has risen for the Christmas vacation, there’s a bit of a lull in the equal marriage fight. A Senate enquiry into the impossibly flawed marriage bill put up by George Brandis in expectation of a plebiscite won’t get under way until it returns in February.

High on the agenda: “religious exemptions” – in reality, proposals to grant special privileges to a range of people to allow them to ignore anti-discrimination law. I understand that our Liberal-owned “representatives” – AME, A4E and Tim Wilson MP – are working on this very issue.

The Case For

It’s a hot button issue in the USA as well. The National Catholic Reporter has an article by Jesuit Fr. Thomas, suggesting how we might find a compromise.

“A workable compromise would make it illegal for major businesses to discriminate against gays in employment or services but might exempt religious institutions and small family businesses.”

In return for agreeing to these exemptions, he says, discrimination would be outlawed in all but a few instances of employment, housing, and public accommodation. What would religions gain?

“Religious organisations would be free to run their institutions according to their beliefs without state interference or the fear of being sued. Clear exemptions that protect their institutional freedom. An end to being portrayed as homophobic.”

That seems a very lopsided deal to me. Major religious-run businesses would be given carte blanche to refuse to employ us or serve us – in their hospitals, schools, universities, for example – to fire us if we are already employed, to decline to house us, find us jobs, or meet on premises they control. Potentially, to refuse to care for us in their residential facilities. That’s a very big ask. That’s not a compromise, it’s a capitulation.

Fr Thomas then turns to small businesses:

“How small should be the family businesses that are exempted? What about an individual employee who has a conscience problem? …For florists and bakeries, should the exemption only cover same-sex weddings and not other purchases? Should exemptions for religious institutions cover all employees, including janitors, or only those considered “ministers” and teachers of religion?”

The Case Against

Enough. Just stop right there, Fr Thomas. I understand that LGBTI are going to have to compromise if we want this parliament to pass a form of Not Quite Right near-equal 2nd-rate marriage. If that’s what we want. But let me be clear. The law should be the same law for everyone. People and businesses should not be given a licence to discriminate. Discrimination should never be written into law. We cannot compromise on that principle. But we can compromise on the implementation.

Your privileges should stop at the church door. Within your churches (and synagogues, mosques, temples etc.) you may discriminate all you wish with regards to ordained religious employees, those training for ordination, and other acolytes and servitors performing liturgical functions: that is, ministers, deacons, rabbis, imams etc. Not secretaries, cleaners, gardeners, teachers or any others performing non-religious functions.

Outside the church door, where you compete with non-religious businesses – running e.g., schools, universities, hospitals, clinics, care homes, employment agencies, hiring out facilities, whatever – everyone must operate under exactly the same laws. Equality before the law. No exceptions.

A Real Compromise

But I am willing to accept a law that allows your large businesses to discriminate, if, and only if, you renounce all taxpayer support and operate entirely independently. No government contracts. No exemptions from or, reductions to, any rates or taxes.

In the case of small wedding-related family businesses of ten or fewer employees, and individual employees with a conscience problem, they should be able to claim an exemption for up to five years. This gives them time to transition to another business or other employment – possibly in one of the larger religious businesses. I’m sure Fr. Thomas and his colleagues in Australia would feel happy, indeed, religiously obliged, to support their faithful brethren.

This temporary exemption should only be available to businesses already running when the act comes into force and twelve months beforehand. It would not be available to new businesses or new employees. The same rules should apply to non-religious, secular marriage celebrants. Five years to change your mind or find a new job.

We need not be too rigid about this. A small business might be granted a permanent exemption provided it was located on religious premises, e.g, a religious bookshop in the church foyer, serving only adherents of that religion. And religious organisations could buy out small family-run religious businesses, or medium size ones not eligible for exemptions, and either close them down, or run them under their own auspices. They could and should take care of their own.

I understand that the ‘compromise’ currently under discussion in Canberra would continue the existing anti-discrimination privileges for religious-run businesses and institutions, and would allow current secular celebrants – but not future ones – to discriminate too. But it would not extend such privileges to caterers, florists, cosmetic dentist and the like.

I think I might be able to live with that. But I’m pretty sure the likes of George Christensen won’t.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)