Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced, rather disappointingly, in an interview, that she had no plans to amend current definitions of marriage. She supports the definition in the Marriage Act that defines marriage as the ‘union between a man and woman’.

What is most problematic about Gillard’s statements is that, despite her non-religious background, her reasoning conflates secular and religious approaches to marriage. Civil marriages, performed by the state, are a secular option for couples to formalise their relationship.

In 2007, 63 percent of all marriages were solemnised by a civil celebrant.

While religion continues to play a significant role in politics, as a secular leader, governing a secular state, the prime minister should not permit religion to dictate the meaning of legislation.

Equality before the law and non-discrimination are fundamental human rights principles. Federal legislation should mimic this by allowing couples to marry regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Same-sex de facto relationships are now recognised at the federal level thanks to the federal Government’s 2008 law reform package, which amended over 85 pieces of legislation to recognise same-sex de facto couples.

Marriage is not simply a question of rights, though. It remains the fundamental means through which intimacy and citizenship are publicly legitimated in this country. While legal entitlements between de facto and married couples are virtually the same, a lack of symbolic recognition for same-sex couples is troubling.

Denying same-sex couples access to marriage promotes a hierarchy of relationships. Couples are granted equal rights and entitlements but different statuses, essentially situating same-sex relationships as ‘inferior’ or ‘lesser than’ heterosexual ones.

How can we expect to end homophobic attitudes to same-sex relationships when the law does not afford us the same respect it extends to heterosexual couples?

If Prime Minister Gillard is committed to promoting tolerance and equality of all Australians, she has to support changes to a discriminatory law that excludes couples access to marriage simply on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

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