THE Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) 2014 National Conference went ahead yesterday despite all the controversy being directed to the organisation and Canberra’s Park Hyatt Hotel, which hosted the conference, in the weeks leading up to it.
The conference drew to a close with relative ease and calm, a stark contrast to the physical protesting presence that greeted Augusts’ World Congress of Families event in Melbourne.
The conference will be remembered as the first time an Australian political leader confronted the ACL over their position on marriage equality and LGBTI rights.
Despite months of calls for him to cancel addressing what many consider to be a homophobic political lobby group, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten took to the lectern soon after 10am to pointedly say that he rejected religiously-based LGBTI discrimination.
“Condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values that we all share,” Shorten told the crowd.
“A violation that can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief.
“Not yours, not mine. Not anyone’s.”
He added that he was a supporter of marriage equality and that religion and faith should never be used as a means to justify sexuality-based division and exclusion.
“I believe our current law does exclude some individuals it says to them that your relationship is not equally valued by the state, that your love is less equal under the law,” he said.
“We currently have a law that discriminates against adult couples on the basis of who they love.”
Pointing to his own Christian upbringing and faith – something he confessed he actively avoids talking about in public – Shorten quoted scriptures along with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, stating that he could not remain silent about those who use religion to demonise others.
“When I see people hiding behind the bible to insult and demonise people based on their sexuality,” he said.
“When I hear people allege that ‘God tells them’ that marriage equality is the first step on the road to polygamy and bigamy and bestiality… I cannot stay silent. I do not agree,
“These prejudices do not reflect the Christian values I believe in.”
It was apparent that those in attendance disagreed with the Shorten’s stance on LGBTI issues, but some welcomed his honesty.
Following his address, Shorten sat down with ACL’s managing director Lyle Shelton for a brief talk where Shelton immediately referred to “the elephant in the room” but commended Shorten on being “fearless and frank with us”.
“Obviously there is a point of difference in our views,” Shelton said.
Referring to the social media campaign that urged the Hyatt to cancel the ACL conference – resulting in a peaceful show of support and visibility at the venue during an ACL dinner on Friday – Shelton said that the hotel had been “bombarded with bile and bitter hatred towards ACL”.
“Yes we should have civility,” Shorten said.
“Some people disagreed with me coming here to say my views.
“We’re members of Parliament. We’ve got to talk to people.”
Following his address the Opposition Leader posed for a photo holding his hands up in the style of Australian Marriage Equality’s hand/heart logo, to further throw his weight behind the movement.
Addressing the media afterwards, he said that his address was an opportunity to speak up for all Australians on the topic of equality and inclusion.
“I think fundamentally in Australia we’re very lucky to be tolerant and to be diverse. I do fundamentally believe that Australian families come in all shapes and sizes,” he said.
“I don’t believe it’s good when people cite some sort of moral authority to criticise blended families, or say that relationships in Australia should just be constructed and supported legally limited to heterosexual relationships and nuclear families.
“There are mums and dads, there are couples, there are individuals who are raising their children to the best of their efforts, and I think it is important to speak up for all of Australia, not just a particular sub-set of Australia.”
Speaking to the Star Observer during a break in the conference, Shelton said that the Labor leader had been pressured into raising the issue of marriage equality due to protests.
“The conference is really geared around other issues. He raised the issue in response to people who wanted to shut down our conference,” Shelton said.
“We didn’t invite him here to talk about that but the issue is held in the parliament at the moment with a majority of parliamentarians [not in support]. From our point of view that campaign and debate is pretty much on hold at the moment.
“He was open and honest with us about his views and I expect nothing less from him. I respect him for that.”
Shelton said that there were a few aspects to Shorten’s speech and questioned its accuracy.
“I’ve never heard people use scripture in the way that he talked about. So I’m not sure where he got that from… with regards to polygamy and bestiality,” he said.
He added that it was supporters of marriage equality who were raising the bestiality issue.
Speaking to a post Shelton made on Twitter during a July episode of Q&A where he appeared to blame the marriage equality movement for the rates of HIV and AIDS – he said that he was referring to all sexuality transmitted infections and that encouragement of healthy, committed traditional relationships would help drive infections rates down.
Other speakers at the conference included Western Australian Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash who spoke on the issue of gender equality, touching on the government’s complete rejection of the practice of female genital mutilation and enforced marriage for girls.
Opposition spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs Shayne Neumann spoke about Indigenous constitutional recognition, saying that the Australian constitution was “unfinished business”.
Meanwhile, Roger Kiska from the Alliance Defending Freedom – a US conservative Christian non-profit organisation – described the marriage equality movement as a “threat” and that marriage was legitimised by “complementary” sex organs.
“On so-called marriage equality… it’s not equality at all because marriage requires biological complementary. Same-sex partners do not have reproductive complementary,” he said.
Kiska also accused same-sex marriage as being a “tyrannical” force preventing European parents from teaching Christianity to their children.
ACL chairman Tony McLellan told the crowd that the fight against marriage equality “becomes tiring at times” but opponents “must stop the deconstructionists”.
Olive Tree Media chief executive Karl Faase said that many religious and political leaders opposed to same-sex marriage were reluctant to speak up out of fear of looking “unjust and unholy” and that one problem about the movement was supportive leaders “trying to be popular”.
He added that the values that drove opponents must be compelled to “remain the prophetic voice for morality and justice”.
A questioner from the floor asked Faase if the church had a right to speak up about child sexual abuse issues, to which he replied: “It’s appalling… we have to demonstrate that we’ve changed… until we do that we will be written off as hypocrites.”
Shelton reflected on the success of the day from his perspective: “We’re happy that it’s been a peaceful day and happy that the threats of being gatecrashed, all of these things on social media, didn’t eventuate.”