AT his first National Press Club appearance, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson made a passionate plea for allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Many true conservatives will agree with his quote from Edmund Burke: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
But buried in Wilson’s compelling case was a worrying suggestion.
He said: “There is concern that if the law changes civil celebrants, venues and photographers will face fines if they don’t participate in weddings they disagree with, as has occurred in the United States. I do not think that is constructive way forward.”
Is Tim Wilson suggesting civil celebrants, wedding caterers, florists and photographers effectively be granted an exemption from state and federal anti-discrimination laws?
If so, where do we draw the line?
Should the exemption be just for same-sex marriages or any marriages wedding service providers disagree with, such as the marriage of divorced partners or interracial marriages?
Should the exemption extend to same-sex commitment and civil union ceremonies, wedding receptions and honeymoons, the baptisms of the children of same-sex couples, or the funerals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people?
I can’t agree with any further exemptions to anti-discrimination on any grounds, including religion.
This is not because I am against enhancing personal freedom.
It’s because I don’t believe all freedoms are the same.
Allowing same-sex partners to marry recognises the value of our love and commitment as well as our capacity as adults and citizens to make one of the most important life decisions anyone is ever called on to make.
It does not practically or materially harm anyone else.
Allowing a reception-centre manager or a hotel receptionist to turn away a same-sex couple demeans the couple, damages the inclusiveness and reputation of the community of which they are part, and does nothing to protect the faith or values of the person doing the discriminating.
Denying a service can too easily create direct practical and material harm.
In short, freedom to marry enhances human dignity, while freedom to discriminate diminishes it.
It’s always possible Tim Wilson thinks making concessions on religious freedom will swing some people of faith over to marriage equality.
If so, he’s wrong.
It’s true that many people of faith who continue to oppose marriage equality do so because they fear their religious freedom may be violated.
But the way to allay these concerns is with the facts.
First, no Australian religious celebrants will be forced to marry same-sex couples.
The existing legal provisions guaranteeing their freedom to turn couples away will be further entrenched and strengthened by marriage equality legislation.
As for other wedding service providers, in its submission to last year’s marriage equality Senate inquiry the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) could only cite two examples in the whole world where legal action has been taken against such a provider because they refused to participate in a same-sex marriage for religious reasons.
This is despite the fact that same-sex couples are allowed to marry in 19 countries across four continents with a combined population of about 800 million people.
What’s more, both the examples cited by the ACL were from the US where marriage equality and religious freedom are far more culturally sensitive and legally contested than in Australia.
As Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson should be calming unfounded fears about marriage equality leading to violations of religious freedom, not legitimising them.
By suggesting there’s some foundation to these particular fears he risks confirming in the minds of some religious folk that the other fears they have about marriage equality may also have some foundation.
I’m not against compromise to achieve important goals. But compromising with unfounded fears never fosters rational policy outcomes.
What the marriage equality debate needs are voices of reason and authority talking about the actual, factual impacts of marriage equality overseas.
My hope is that Tim Wilson becomes one such voice, just as he is a powerful voice for marriage equality generally.
Rodney Croome is the national director of Australian Marriage Equality and 2015 Tasmanian of the Year.