Law council slams ‘discrimination’ provisions to marriage equality bill

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The Law Council of Australia has rejected provisions of the Turnbull Government’s same-sex marriage bill saying that the changes would further engrain discrimination.

The lawyers’ group, which represents 16 Australian state and territory law societies and bar associations, told a Parliamentary inquiry in Melbourne that it opposed giving civil celebrants and religious service providers rights to serve same-sex weddings. The law should apply to service providers since commercial activities are not part of protections under religious freedoms, the organisation argued.

“The exclusion of same-sex couples from the Marriage Act denies them a right afforded to all other Australians and is inconsistent with the right to be free from discrimination,” said Fiona McLeod SC, president of the Law Council of Australia.

The council supports freedom of religion and allowing ministers of religion to conduct religious marriage ceremonies aligns with their religions’ doctrines, but it does not support extending this to civil celebrants and religious providers which are not specifically defined.

“Extending this exemption to civil celebrants discriminates against same-sex couples without any proper basis. The marriage ceremonies that civil celebrants perform are secular, not religious. They do not merit the same protection of freedom of religion and have no other proper basis for exemption,” McLeod said.

The council also opposed the proposed exemption for “religious bodies and organisations” in providing facilities, goods or services, saying the change could be abused.

“This proposed exemption would erode fundamental principles of non-discrimination and represent a disproportionate extension of existing exemptions to discrimination laws for ‘religious bodies’ in defined and limited circumstances,” McLeod said. “Further, an organisation not established for religious purposes, but connected with a religious body, which provides commercial services incidental to the solemnisation of marriage – such as, photographers and caterers – should not be able to rely on the exemptions to unlawfully discriminate against couples on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“There is an important distinction between freedom of religion and the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs. The freedom to express one’s religious beliefs must be carefully balanced where it intrudes upon other rights, such as the fundamental right to be free from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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