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Last-Minute Push To Protect Faith-Based Charities in Same Sex Marriage Bill

4 December 2017 at 4:57 pm
Luke Michael
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and a number of Coalition MPs have led a last-minute push to amend the same sex marriage bill to include greater protections for faith-based charities, as church leaders from across Australia call for greater religious protections.

Luke Michael | 4 December 2017 at 4:57 pm


Last-Minute Push To Protect Faith-Based Charities in Same Sex Marriage Bill
4 December 2017 at 4:57 pm

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and a number of Coalition MPs have led a last-minute push to amend the same sex marriage bill to include greater protections for faith-based charities, as church leaders from across Australia call for greater religious protections.

The same sex marriage bill put forward by Liberal Senator Dean Smith has passed the Senate, without some of the stronger religious freedom protections proposed by Senator James Paterson in his alternative bill.

But as the Smith bill is debated in the House of Representatives this week, the prime minister has endorsed amendments to the bill to ensure religious freedoms for faith-based charities are protected.

“No charity should be at risk of losing their charitable status [over their marriage views],” Turnbull told Sky News.

“Let me put it this way; St Vincent de Paul [is] a huge charity. It’s a Catholic charity. No one could ever reasonably, sensibly, rationally suggest that because it’s a Catholic charity and… its leadership believe in Catholic teaching on matters of faith and morality, including marriage, that it should lose its charitable status. I mean, that is ridiculous.

“The [Smith] Bill doesn’t do that [but] a lot of the amendments that we’re talking about are really providing assurance that things that are unintended consequences, are not going to occur.”

Nearly a dozen Coalition MPs including Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott are also believed to be pushing for further protections for religious charities, despite the current bill passing the Senate 43-12 last week.

This comes as almost 30 senior church leaders across Australia signed an open letter to Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten, calling for religious freedom protections to be embedded in same sex marriage legislation.

“The recent postal survey result has indicated that the will of a majority of Australians is to support a change in the law to allow same sex couples to marry,” the letter said.

“Polling has shown, however, that regardless of voting intention, even more Australians support the Parliament’s guaranteeing in law freedoms of conscience, belief and religion when it legislates for same-sex marriage.

“The Senate has now voted against amendments that aim to reasonably accommodate these matters. We therefore write to voice our concern that the bill now due for consideration by the House of Representatives does not address adequate consideration of these fundamental freedoms.”

Protections for religious charities was prominent amongst their concerns, with church leaders worried that “the rights of religious institutions to establish and maintain faith-based charities in accordance with their convictions is not assured”.

“The concern that charities that express a traditional view of marriage will lose their charitable status at law, as has occurred in other common law jurisdictions, is not addressed,” the letter said.

“In addition, once the definition of marriage alters, the question immediately arises as to whether a charity that holds a traditional view of marriage will retain its charity status at law.

“In particular we note that the acting Australian Charities and Not-for-profits commissioner has indicated in his 24 November 2017 letter to Senator Smith that one way to address the concerns that have been raised may be to provide in the amending legislation that nothing in the legislation adversely affects an entity’s charitable status by reason only that the entity holds or expresses a position on marriage.”

Despite this, the bill looks likely to pass through the lower house unamended, with Labor MP Tony Burke indicating his party would not support any changes to the legislation for “problems that don’t exist”.

“This whole charity’s amendment, it’s already the case that the definition of marriage observed by a whole lot of Christian charities is different to the definition of marriage at law already. They’re not losing their funding. So some of these amendments are in search of a problem that doesn’t exist,” Burke told ABC Radio National.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) has also called for the bill to be passed in the same form that it left the Senate.

LCA president Fiona McLeod SC, said the bill already struck the right balance between protecting religious freedom and restricting discrimination.

“The bill already extends existing protections for freedom of religious expression in the context of marriage,” McLeod said.

“It supports the protection of religious freedoms in two ways: It permits ministers of religion and religious marriage celebrants to refuse to solemnise a marriage, and it also allows bodies established for religious purposes to refuse to provide goods or services for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage.

“Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right. Discrimination on personal attributes, including sexual orientation, is contrary to our international obligations.”

Last month, the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, Father Frank Brennan, told Pro Bono News that he did not think a range of religious freedom protections were necessary in same sex marriage legislation.

“I think that protections for religious people who don’t want to involve themselves in a same-sex marriage ceremony should be included in the marriage act, but other protections [regarding religious freedom] should be included in other legislation,” Brennan said.

Religious freedoms are set to come under scrutiny separate to same sex marriage legislation, with the government recently announcing that Philip Ruddock will lead a review into the legal protections for religious freedom in Australia.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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