PM’s focus on freedom for religion
Malcolm Turnbull has declared he believes in religious freedom “even more strongly” than in same-sex marriage as he responds to John Howard’s call for swift action to reveal new safeguards for all Australians before they cast their postal survey votes over the next seven weeks.
The Prime Minister yesterday vowed to protect religious freedom, in a new signal to Australians who feared the loss of their personal rights if a reform bill was rushed through parliament by the end of the year.
He did not make any pledge to outline changes before the November 7 deadline for postal ballots.
Christian groups hailed the “landmark day” in the campaign after Bill Shorten issued a similar vow to Mr Turnbull’s, saying that as a person of faith he would not support any bill that impinged on religious freedom.
The developments highlighted dissent within Coalition ranks.
Church leaders also backed Mr Howard’s call for the government to outline protections for religious freedoms before the postal vote, while advocates for marriage equality said the onus was on the No campaigners to offer “detailed remedies” if they believed existing safeguards were inadequate.
Speaking from Singapore, Mr Howard said he believed the concessions from Mr Turnbull and the Opposition Leader about the prospect of further amendments reinforced his call on the government to produce protections for religion, freedom of speech and parental rights.
“My view is: if they concede the minimum protections are not adequate, then are they reinforcing the need that what those protections are should be released before the ballot is over?” he told The Weekend Australian.
“The main game is before the vote; after the ballot is far too late.”
Mr Turnbull offered Mr Howard an opportunity to contribute to the final bill, to be decided in parliament by December 7 after the postal vote results are revealed on November 15, but the former prime minister said the issue should be discussed beforehand and Mr Turnbull could call him “directly” when he wanted.
Mr Abbott yesterday backed Mr Howard’s push for religious protections to be revealed before people voted and declared religious protections should have been worked out “well before” the issue was put to the people.
“Freedom of conscience should not be an afterthought from people who claim they support freedom,” Mr Abbott said.
“The extraordinary intolerance and bullying we’ve seen from SSM supporters means that assurances that freedom of conscience will be protected in this brave new world are hard to take seriously.’’
In an exclusive interview with The Weekend Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, Mr Abbott outlined what he would have done had he remained prime minister. He said he intended to submit to a public vote the final bill on same-sex marriage that would ultimately be put to parliament if the plebiscite returned a yes vote.
Advocates for change have drafted a bill that confirms the rights of ministers of religion to refuse to solemnise a same-sex marriage as well as the rights of religious organisations to refuse to provide services for wedding functions that breach their faith.
The lead proponent for this bill, West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith, said those who considered these safeguards
inadequate should offer “detailed legislative remedies” to address the issue.
Marriage equality advocate Rodney Croome said it was time for the No campaign to spell out “exactly” what legal amendments they needed.
“In the absence of concrete legal proposals, the No campaign about freedom of speech and religion is just about muddying the waters,” Mr Croome said.
“My challenge to the No case is to show us exactly what legal changes you want, or move on.”
Mr Turnbull promised “extensive” protections for religious freedom but made it clear this was up to parliament as a whole rather than the government.
“I just want to reassure Australians that as strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, as strongly as I believe in that, even more strongly, if you like, do I believe in religious freedom,” the Prime Minister said.
“Religious freedom is fundamental and it will be protected in any bill that emerges from this parliament.”
Mr Shorten issued a promise to voters, saying he had been “raised to be a person of faith” and would make sure the concerns would be treated with respect.
“Labor will not support legislation which impinges upon religious freedom in this country,” he said.
The Coalition for Marriage saw the comments from Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten as confirmation that the same-sex marriage debate was about religious freedom — and that wider protections were needed.
Australian Christian Lobby head and the Coalition for Marriage spokesman Lyle Shelton said: “Now that they are admitting that protections are needed, they need to describe how freedom of belief will work for all Australians under same-sex marriage law.
“This includes for parents who don’t want radical LGBTIQ sex education forced on their children and people of faith or no faith who wish to continue to believe marriage is one man, one woman.”
Determined to win the postal ballot, No campaigners have refused to outline the safeguards they would like to see written into the law, saying to do so would be to admit defeat. Mr Shelton did not answer questions about whether the onus was on him and the No campaign to explain how to protect freedoms without allowing a religion to deny services to others.
Church leaders and legal scholars backed Mr Howard’s call for the government to outline protections for religious freedoms ahead of the vote.
The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, said verbal assurances provided by the government that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience would be protected were not enough if the community were to make an informed decision.
He said it was “deeply contradictory” to talk “obsessively about human rights while at the same time undermining the rights to religious freedom”.
“John Howard has identified an unease many of us feel, particularly given that, in Australia, protections for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are already uncertain,” he said.
Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies echoed Archbishop Coleridge’s concerns, saying the Turnbull government would be “foolish” to ignore Mr Howard’s “wisdom and experience”.
“Given the obstruction of the Senate in preventing the government from delivering on its promise to hold a plebiscite, we cannot be confident the government can provide the protections for free speech and freedom of belief which are essential,” he said.
Murdoch University legal academic Augusto Zimmermann said that once marriage was redefined, anyone who disagreed with samesex marriage and denied a service faced potential legal prosecution — not for the denial but on the grounds of discrimination.