Prime Minister John Howard described the campaign for gay marriage as minority fundamentalism and said it was not discrimination to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

He made the comments during a question and answer session with students at University College Dublin on Monday during a visit to Ireland.

I think it is a form of minority fundamentalism to say that you have to, in every aspect of one’s institutions and one’s arrangements in society, have technical equivalence, Howard said.

The prime minister was challenged to defend what one student described as his efforts to entrench homophobia in Australia by banning gay marriage.

Howard replied that his government had removed most of the financial discrimination against gay men and lesbians, but that the majority of Australians did not want gay marriage to be legalised, ABC News reported.

I think it is discrimination against homosexuals to deny them employment opportunities because they’re homosexual, the prime minister said.

I think it’s discrimination to deny them property rights and we have sought to, as we see the need, we have sought to remove that, he said.

But to carry it to the lengths of saying, well you’ve got to give an equivalence in relation to marriage -“ I don’t support that view and I have absolutely no unease of any kind in supporting the decision that’s been taken.

Australian gay rights activists said the prime minister was wrong on several counts.

Co-convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby David Scamell said it was incorrect to suggest most of the financial discrimination had been removed. It still existed in areas such as superannuation, taxation, Medicare, aged care, child-care and veteran’s benefits, he said.

I think it’s quite interesting that in Howard’s opinion this government has remedied most of the financial discrimination against same sex couples, Scamell told Sydney Star Observer.

Yet as we know there is a major inquiry from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the extent of the disadvantage same-sex couples face, and we have an increasing number of Liberal MPs speaking out publicly in support of changing federal legislation to better recognise same-sex relationships.

Scamell added that it was a sad day for Australia when the prime minister labelled a section of society pushing for essentially basic human rights, as minority fundamentalists.

Australian Coalition for Equality spokesperson Rod Swift challenged the prime minister to outline areas of discrimination he didn’t see the need to remove.

He should state which areas same-sex couples and their families deserve second-class and unequal treatment, Swift said.

Rodney Croome, of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, pointed out that a recent Newspoll showed the majority of Australians supported gay relationship recognition.

The survey of 1,200 Australians found 52 percent thought the federal government should introduce a new law to formally recognise same-sex relationships, Sydney Star Observer reported in February.

John Howard is misrepresenting his government as more progressive, and Australians as more prejudiced, than either actually are, Croome said.

Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja said this week she had drafted a private members bill which would reverse the federal government’s amendment to the Marriage Act which banned gay marriage in 2004. She hoped to introduce the bill in June.

Those against same-sex marriage argue that it would destroy the -˜sanctity’ of marriage, Stott Despoja wrote in Adelaide’s The Advertiser.

However, with the climbing divorce rate and decreasing rate of heterosexual marriage, an increase in its participation rates could possibly strengthen it.

Students at the University College Dublin also asked Howard about Australia’s involvement in Iraq, why the government refused to officially apologise to Indigenous Australians and for Howard’s views on Iran.

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