EQUAL rights means equal rights for everyone; but when human rights compete it is through dialogue that we find the best way forward.

Last week my friend Rodney Croome wrote an article that was constructively critical of sections of my recent National Press Club address.

The speech argued that it is consistent to advance religious freedom, marriage for same-sex couples and keeping resilient marriages together after one partner changes their gender.

In the speech I also objected to the idea that it was desirable that service providers should face fines for acting against their conscience.

In response, Croome asked: “Is Tim Wilson suggesting civil celebrants, wedding caterers, florists and photographers effectively be granted an exemption from state and federal anti-discrimination laws?”

The answer to Croome’s question is easy: no.

As Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner I have to take account of religious freedom, as well as equality before the law for LGBTI Australians.

Throughout the second-half of last year I engaged with communities across Australia about human rights issues.

Religious communities consistently raised their concerns about how religious freedom would be impacted by allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Everyone knows that rabbis, imams and priests will not be forced to marry a same-sex couple, and nor should they be.

What concerns religious communities is whether civil celebrants would be forced to marry same-sex couples even if the marriage goes against their personal religious faith. They were also concerned about wedding venues, photographers and cake makers.

Any intrusion on religious freedom sits on a scale.

Clearly cake makers would have the least infringement on their religious liberty. It’s hardly an infringement of someone’s religious freedom to ask them to bake a chocolate mud cake simply because the purchaser may place a plastic figurine of two grooms or brides on the top.

Venues and photographers sit in the middle. They are direct participants in a wedding. I’ve yet to be convinced that it is an infringement on their religious freedom to host or photograph happy couples.

Civil celebrants are a bit different. They conduct a marriage. Civil celebrants are also licensed by government and must treat everyone equally.

It seems pointless to force a religiously-inspired civil celebrant to marry a couple for a relationship they disagree with.

Why anyone would want to be married by a celebrant that doesn’t respect their marriage is beyond me.

For the most part, the market will sort it out anyway. Civil celebrants will become known as favourable or unfavourable to same-sex couples.

But rather than dismiss the concerns of religious communities I am simply asking: what do religious communities want?

Their answer has been that they do not want people with religious inspiration to be legally compelled to sanction marriages they disagree with.

A solution could be to amend the registration process for civil celebrants.

We could simply require celebrants-to-be to nominate during the registration process whether they wanted to be licensed to celebrate heterosexual marriages, homosexual marriages, or both.

If they only selected “homosexual” then they’d only legally be able to celebrate a same-sex marriage. There’d be no discrimination against heterosexual couples because they couldn’t legally celebrate the marriage.

I flagged this proposal at an Interfaith Summit of religious communities late last year. It received overwhelming support because it took their concerns seriously, resolved the problem and didn’t diminish treatment of same-sex couples.

I proposed it at a public meeting in Charters Towers and it was pilloried. It may not be the answer, but it is worth considering.

We shouldn’t look at these debates as though religious freedom can win, or equality wins. We can achieve both.

A zero-sum approach is basically how we end up with anti-discrimination laws that give broad exemptions to religious groups for services financed by the taxpayer, like health and education.

Unsurprisingly, in the Commission’s consultations with the LGBTI community there has been strong support for removing or narrowing exemptions under anti-discrimination laws.

Meanwhile, there has also be strong support from religious communities to have them maintained.

Equally, the Commission has received suggestions about how this tension can be resolved from both LGBTI groups, as well as from religious communities.

We won’t resolve these tensions by simply listening to one section of the community and ignoring the other.

We all rightly abhor unjust discrimination. But LGBTI groups sometimes discriminate, too. For example, there are gay and lesbian groups that have been granted exemptions from anti-discrimination laws to exclude people based on their gender or because they are heterosexual.

Advancing all human rights requires an open-mind and a respectful dialogue so that any reform can enjoy widespread support and acceptance.

Tim Wilson is Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner.

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