THE power over marriage should be taken out of the hands of the government and given solely to churches, according to Palmer United Party (PUP) leader Clive Palmer.

Speaking at a press conference in Sydney this morning, the federal Fairfax MP announced his party’s policy on marriage equality — devised following 12 months of research and feedback — was to ensure churches had the freedom to reject granting marriages to same-sex couples without fear of facing legal backlash.

Couples of any gender would either be able to enter into a civil union or seek approval from a church if they wanted to be married, according to the PUP policy.

“Many churches are worried that same-sex couples will take legal action against them, forcing them to admit and marry people against their beliefs,” Palmer said in a statement.

“It has long been accepted that separation between church and state forms the basis of any democracy. We need to ensure that the reach of government does not direct or require any religious organisations or churches to act against their beliefs.

“Likewise we must ensure that all citizens are equal under the law.”

Claiming that the Coalition and Labor parties have a shared belief in a national plebiscite – Labor’s official party policy actually being in favour of a free vote in parliament — Palmer said he opposed the idea.

“They seem to be putting off the decision because they don’t want to face reality,” he told the press gathering this morning.

“And what happens if we have a plebiscite will be that the community will be divided, some will ask when the next plebiscite will be.

“So we need to have a policy that will provide certainty to the community and more importantly doesn’t divide and separate it.”

Arguing that marriage has been the domain of religion for generations, Palmer said same-sex couples would not want to be married in a church that did not accept their relationship.

“You can’t legislate for social acceptance. Real change only comes by people accepting each other,” he said.

“If you’re a gay couple you don’t want to go to a church where you’re not accepted. One thing we know about worshipping religion is that we want to be accepted by our peers.

“If you want to get married it’s up to you. There are churches that will marry gay couples… and accept gay people.

“The real proposition is this: would you want to be a member of a church that discriminated against you?”

Leaving control of marriage to the government would only see continued fighting and division from whichever side lost the debate, according to Palmer.

“While this policy won’t help everyone, it goes a long way to bringing a resolution to the situation,” he said.

The PUP leader also said legislative power shouldn’t be wielded as a “sword to attack” those opposing a particular position.

“Otherwise we’ll have a society that’s fragmented,” he said.

Evading questions over his personal stance on marriage equality — which he said was irrelevant to the debate — Palmer said the potential problem over forcing couples of any gender who may want a secular marriage to obtain a religious one, went down to how people defined marriage.

“We’re talking about the rights of people and we’re saying that citizens can’t sue churches to make them be accepted into that church,” he said.

“We’re also saying at the same time that every citizen has the right to a civil union. Now they can call it a marriage if they want to, it’s up to them. All the legal rights that you have in the family law act will still remain.”

On whether the PUP policy was just installing another two-tiered marriage system in Australia, Palmer disagreed.

“Not really, the only argument to say [marriage] is a level playing field is that all citizens have that right and should be treated equally under the law. I’m a legislator, that’s something I accept.

“We’re saying that ‘yes. it’s a valid argument’. The next argument is does a minority group regardless of who they are have the rights… to make any organisation follow what they believe? I don’t think they do.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s gays or who it is really. Religion is separate from government.”

Australian Marriage Equality (AME) criticised the PUP policy, calling it “radical and unnecessary”.

“The simplest way to ensure churches aren’t forced to marry same-sex couples is to allow clergy to refuse to marry them,” AME national director Rodney Croome said.

“The Marriage Act currently allows clergy to refuse to marry any couple who don’t conform to church doctrine and that provision should simply be expanded to include same-sex couples when marriage equality is enacted.

“Mr Palmer’s proposal radically alters the meaning of marriage by effectively denying marriage to the 70 percent of Australian couples who currently marry in civil ceremonies.

“Most opposite-sex and same-sex couples will find Mr Palmer’s policy unnecessary, complicated and offensive to their aspiration to marry.”

Croome expressed concerns that explicit religious control over marriage could see churches define marriage for themselves.

“Giving religious bodies a monopoly over marriage could lead to marriage being defined in ways most Australians find unacceptable, including polygamy and child marriage,” he said.

However, Croome welcomed Palmer’s rejection of a plebiscite and urged him to continue his support for a free vote and pressure Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to grant one within his party.

“All MPs, regardless of party, should be free to vote according to their own beliefs on marriage equality,” Croome said.

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