The Liberal Party, Same-Sex Marriage and Freedom of Conscience: A Case of False Promises?

In recent months, certain proponents of same-sex marriage (hereafter, SSM) within the Liberal party have argued that people who support so-called “traditional marriage” ought to vote “Yes”, for the simple reason that freedom of conscience and religion will be better protected if the relevant changes are implemented under the auspices of a Coalition government. The argument is composed of three main prongs, or assumptions: first, SSM is inevitable in Australia, regardless of the outcome of the current postal plebiscite; second, as the party of small government and individual freedom, the Coalition is best-placed to secure the rights of conscientious objectors under the new regime; and third, if the present push for SSM fails, the country runs the risk of giving the ALP – which is less sympathetic to intellectual (including religious) liberty – the task of presiding over future alterations to the marriage act.

One might call this the “Argument from Inevitable Change” or the “Argument from Salvaging Individual Rights”. Whatever label one wishes to use, I don’t accept it on its face – largely because it means evacuating one’s position of all principle. I’m inclined to agree with the view of Quadrant editor, Keith Windschuttle, who has said the argument is a “political tactic”, intended to “deflate” opponents of SSM rather than engage them in debate. However, even if I thought there was some tactical merit in voting for change – based on the belief that doing so now would guarantee some measure of religious and intellectual protection – there are pressing questions over the validity of the argument’s basic components. Its first and third limbs are relatively sound: SSM has the air of inevitability about it (though, of course, it’s not a fait accompli); and the ALP cannot be trusted when it comes to securing the rights of conscientious dissenters. But it’s the claim’s second limb – namely, that the Coalition will protect the liberties of individuals and groups opposed to SSM – with which I take issue.

This brings me to reports regarding Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s private member’s bill to legalise SSM. His comments about the bill have raised serious doubts in my mind over the Coalition’s ability to guarantee the aforementioned rights, particularly as they pertain to religious freedom. Smith was quoted recently in The Australian saying that whilst his bill provided safeguards to religious institutions, ministers, and the like, it did not extend those protections to business owners who provide wedding-related services, unless they could “prove a link to a religious body” (“Same-sex safeguards not for all businesses,” September 18th, 2017; article paywalled). He said that if a bakery, for example, failed to substantiate a formal connection to a church (or mosque, synagogue, etc.), it would not be afforded legal defence if it refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Smith argued that because people cannot presently discriminate against gays and lesbians, they should not be able to refuse services to a same-sex couple wanting to get married. In his mind, this would represent a regression in current anti-discrimination law.

Should conscientious objectors take moral issue with rendering services to a same-sex couple for their wedding, they are likely to be left completely exposed under such proposals. I recognize that there are important legal questions related to whether providing, say, floral arrangements at a same-sex wedding ceremony constitutes endorsement of that union, just as there are debates regarding the provision of such services, and whether this violates the vendor’s moral and/or religious convictions if they happen to oppose SSM. But the religious exemption clauses in Smith’s bill do not assuage my concerns at all. Woefully inadequate, they are built upon logical inconsistencies and false assumptions – trading, it seems, on very narrow conceptions of both religious expression and legitimate grounds for dissent. I think it’s worth examining these intellectual infelicities in a little more detail.

Religious Bodies and Believers: An Illegitimate Distinction

To begin, there is the question of consistency within the proposed exemptions, particularly as they apply to people whose objections to SSM stem from religious convictions. Smith’s bill artificially divides formal ecclesiastical bodies (as well as ministers in their employ) and the wider pool of religious adherents who compose them. Such bodies are far more than the institutional frameworks distinguishing them from other organised groups. Similarly, the ongoing life and reality of religious institutions exceeds the work of ministers, pastors, imams and the like. Rather, they are sustained by the activities of individual believers, as they gather for worship, serve each other in a variety of ways, and generally manifest the communal dimensions of their respective faith traditions. Religious institutions are, in other words, social realities, embedded in a complex set of networks in which “professional” clergy and laypeople both participate. In the case of Christian churches, ministers exist for the sake of their congregations – conveying religious truth, which is then embodied and enacted in the lives of congregants (whether individually or corporately). The doctrinal positions which define or constrain a minister’s behaviour – which in this case entails beliefs about the nature of marriage – will normally perform the same functions over the lives of those he serves, wherever they happen to find themselves.

Additionally, Christian accounts of religious life emphasize the inherently unitary nature of the church, such that religious officeholders and members form one coherent organism. One is an “in-grafted” member of this organism by virtue of being a professed and genuine Christian, regardless of where he or she happens to be. In many ways, there is no substantive distinction, on either theological or sociological grounds, between religious bodies or ministers on the one hand, and the laity on the other. The religious provisions of Senator Smith’s bill rest upon an unwarranted abstraction, failing to recognize the inherent inseparability of religious institutions and their adherents. To refer to the former apart from the latter – as the bill effectively does – is to trade in illusory deconstruction. The bill’s exemptions divest formal ecclesial bodies of the very believers who help maintain their distinctive shape and identities, even as they remove said believers (at least conceptually) from the communal context that sustains and grounds their beliefs. That’s why Rev Dr Joseph Parkinson, director of the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth (attached to that city’s Catholic archdiocese) was correct when he recently wrote to the editor of The Australian that “it is inconsistent and illogical to create exemption for ministers” if they are not extended to “individual religious adherents” – for the very reason that “in respect of beliefs about…marriage, there is no distinction” between the one and the other.

Narrowing Religion

But if Senator Smith has illegitimately tried to parse religious bodies and believers, he is also guilty of holding to a reductive account of religion. A reading of the relevant exemptions suggests that it is only the work of official clergy, operating within an explicitly or institutionally religious setting, which warrants protection; religious adherents who try to conform to the teachings of their faith tradition in their daily lives – including, in the case of religious conservatives, adherence to teachings concerning traditional marriage – are not afforded the same courtesy. But that the bill exclusively concentrates on the activity of formal religious bodies and accredited ministers suggests that Senator Smith is thinking of spiritual expression in extremely narrow terms. It is, in other words, far too restricted an understanding of what religion is, and the role it plays in – and over – a person’s life.

To be sure, practices within formal houses of worship (singing, prayers, chants, readings from sacred texts, recitation of creeds, rituals, etc.) constitute important manifestations of religious devotion. This cannot be denied. But just as religious bodies are not exhausted by either their institutional architecture or their official representatives, so religion in general is not completely captured by what happens in formal services (however articulated). For many believers, religiosity is something that colours and shapes every dimension of life – not only within, but beyond, the church, mosque or synagogue. Any serious religious individual will seek to implement, where possible, the teachings of her religion in whatever station or environment, including the workplace. This is only natural: an authentically religious view of life would seem to entail a fully integrated existence, rejecting of crude, post-Enlightenment divisions between the secular and the sacred. Trying to compartmentalize something as all-embracing as religion is simply impractical, for it is commonly embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking. Moreover, for those who swim in the Protestant stream of Christianity, work – even “secular” work – is often viewed as a divine calling, offering the believer the opportunity to worship God through her labour. Obviously, this attitude must be carefully balanced with the right of others to pursue their goals unmolested. But if religion is a whole-of-life concern, then it normally entails the adoption of a comprehensive approach to the teachings and ethos of one’s particular faith tradition.

Senator Smith’s bill recognizes none of this. It relies instead upon the forced demarcation I noted earlier – owing so much to Enlightenment thought – between spiritual and secular affairs. That seems to be implicit in the proposal to grant formal religious bodies and employees legal protections if they do not wish to solemnise a same-sex wedding, but not, say, a Christian florist who declines to provide services for such a ceremony. It wrongly assumes that the influence of one’s religious beliefs can simply cease at the door of one’s house of worship, safely corralled by the dictates of a secular society. But to repeat myself: religion does not actually work in this fashion. Offering an interpretive framework within which to make sense of the various elements of one’s existence, it has the potential to indelibly influence every dimension of life. Religion is far more than a series of atomised opinions about a transcendent realm, severed from the everyday concerns of the individual adherent. It cannot be reduced to a clutch of discrete acts, performed in well-defined settings, that can be described as overtly “spiritual” (e.g., worship in a church setting). The proposed bill leaves the public with a “thin” – nay, eviscerated – conception of religiosity, failing to capture the broadness of the phenomenon as it actually occurs outside the pages of proposed legislation.

What Counts as Discrimination Anyway?

I must confess that clearly interpreting Smith’s reasons for limiting the bill’s anti-discrimination exemptions isn’t easy. One might argue that the proposed parameters are intended to prevent some vendors from cloaking anti-gay animus in the garb of recognized religious systems, thereby saving gay couples from reputational and psychological damage. By limiting the right to conscientiously decline participation in a same-sex wedding to ministers of religion, invidious discrimination against homosexuals by supposedly bigoted commercial operators can largely be erased; if that means capturing other business owners who, because of genuine religious or moral objections, cannot contribute to the production of a same-sex wedding (so the argument might go), so be it.

But I wonder whether a more disturbing interpretation of the bill’s exemption clauses might not be more accurate. On this view, any refusal to provide wedding services to a same-sex couple constitutes unfair discrimination, regardless of motive or sincerity. This would make sense of the absolutism in Senator Smith’s remarks concerning commercial businesses and current anti-discrimination law, where he offered a fairly unnuanced position on what counts as discrimination. Indeed, that he grounded the narrowness of proposed exemptions in the fact that people cannot presently discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation implies some kind of equivalence: refusing service because a person is gay and refusing service because one does not want to implicitly endorse a same-sex wedding amount to the same thing. Such an interpretation would also cohere with what appears to be Smith’s restricted view of legitimate religious expression and discrimination. Finally, and as we’ll soon see, it would conform to established judicial and legislative practice overseas, which seems to regard conscientious objection to SSM on the part of commercial operators as a form of invidious discrimination.

Let’s assume this latter reading is correct. If so, there are a couple of problems with the way Senator Smith has cast a commercial operator’s possible moral-religious objections to SSM. First, it would seem to rely on Smith’s impossibly narrow conception of religious expression – which, as we have already seen, hardly reflects religiosity as it is instantiated in the experiences of ordinary people. Second, equating such objections – and the consequent refusal to offer one’s commercial services – with homophobic prejudice is simply fallacious. It is false to think that a vendor’s decision to withhold their products and skills from a same-sex wedding is merely a subset of anti-gay discrimination. Contrary to what some SSM activists believe, it is logically possible to hold traditional views around marriage whilst also being completely free of animus towards gays and lesbians. Indeed, a positive view of same-sex relationships is logically consistent with the conviction that marriage is, by definition, a dyadic union of sexual complements. In my view, these positions can be clearly distinguished. But Senator Smith fails to recognize this, conflating opposition to SSM – perhaps expressed by a refusal to render services to a same-sex wedding – with a more general refusal to serve customers based on their sexuality.

The case of Barronelle Stutzman, a florist in the United States, is instructive in this regard. For many years, Ms. Stutzman served Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, a gay couple. She knew they were in a homosexual relationship, whilst they knew she was a conservative Christian. Ms. Stutzman had no qualms serving the couple, and supplied them with floral arrangements for a variety of personal and celebratory occasions. But when they asked her to supply flowers for their wedding, she politely declined. Ms. Stutzman grounded her refusal in her belief that marriage is defined by the union of one man and one woman. The couple sued her, as did the state of Washington. In its final judgment, the Supreme Court of Washington stated that Ms. Stutzman’s decision amounted to unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But as Ryan Anderson, writing for The Public Discourse, has said, the court’s ruling (and, by extension, Senator Smith’s bill), illegitimately elides real and imagined discrimination. Anderson asks us to consider a florist who refuses to serve customers who identify as LGBT simply because of that identification. He contends, “that would be a case of invidious discrimination because the mere knowledge that they identify as LGBT should have no impact whatsoever on the act of the florist selling flowers, because there is no rational connection between the two”. But, Anderson continues, in the case of Ms. Stutzman, her decision “did not spring from any convictions about people who identify as LGBT”, and had nothing to do with making distinctions based on a person’s sexual orientation; rather, it was rooted in what she believes to be the true shape of marriage. If Senator Smith, like Washington State’s Supreme Court, thinks that commercial operators who are uncomfortable offering their services to a same-sex wedding are guilty of making unfair distinctions as a result of one’s sexuality, then he has simply recapitulated those earlier conceptual errors: not only are we brought back to the original blunder concerning the scope of acceptable religious expression; it would appear that on this view, refusal to lend one’s creative talents to a same-sex wedding is per se an instance of unjustified discrimination.

Needless to say, these errors have practical consequences. They leave ordinary people – people like Ms. Stutzman – vulnerable to grievous violations of conscience or ruinous legal and pecuniary costs. Harnessing the state’s power to curtail a person’s ability to live in accordance with deeply-held beliefs corrodes our society’s commitment to liberty of conscience. Trying to coerce conformity on a particular question is neither practical nor ethical in a profoundly pluralistic society; indeed, opinions on this question – as on so many questions – are radically incommensurate, such that to compel a person’s participation in something they regard as spurious isn’t simply to inconvenience them, but to force them to betray their own, deeply-rooted convictions. Against this, one might invoke the harm principle: excluding swathes of people from anti-discrimination exemptions saves same-sex couples from psychological injury caused by a denial of service. But where does the real harm lie? With the hypothetical same-sex couple, which may be forced, say, to look for another vendor to organise the floral arrangements for their nuptials? Or with the dissenting florist, who is confronted with the unenviable choice of either violating her conscience, or leaving herself open to hefty legal and financial penalties?

Conscience Protections for the Non-Religious: A Forgotten Constituency?

Up to this point, I have only spoken of the flaws contained in Senator Smith’s bill as they relate to religious sources of opposition to SSM. But what about people – wedding services providers, celebrants, and the like – who may hold non-religious objections? Admittedly their numbers are likely to be miniscule. Still, the importance of individual rights isn’t determined by the number of people who are likely to hold them. There may well be some business owners, providing a variety of wedding services, whose secular belief system does not permit them to validate the reality or morality of SSMs. Even if a vendor’s religious concerns were to be recognized, and exemptions were extended to them, this would still leave non-religious conscientious objectors exposed to legal action. On a conceptual level, the bill commits itself to what I regard as a falsely restricted view of opposition to SSM. It tacitly assumes that only those whose disquiet is grounded in religion could credibly refuse to participate in a same-sex wedding (and then, only in the context of one’s institutional affiliation with a recognized denomination). Smith’s proposed bill says nothing about opposition to SSM that isn’t grounded in religious belief. Does this not represent the presumption that such an attitude can only ever stem from a religious worldview? Certainly, it’s possible to base one’s commitment to so-called “conjugal” marriage upon a deference to traditional mores and norms, or the belief that children ideally ought, where possible, to be raised and socialized by their biological parents. Moreover, academics, like the legal scholar Robert P. George, have sought to root their conviction that marriage is a union characterized by sexual complementarity in a specific metaphysic – one that does not, in the final analysis, rely upon religious tradition, belief in God, or revelatory claims. Whether such arguments are successful in persuading others is beside the point; the fact that they exist suggests that it is possible to hold to a view of traditional marriage apart from religious belief. Yet the proposed bill apparently makes no references to this reality, allowing for only the most narrow expressions of intellectual liberty. I recognize that wedding vendors, regardless of the source of their beliefs, are not afforded legal protection; neither a religious florist nor a secular baker – both of whom oppose SSM – can expect to find solace in anti-discrimination exemptions. Still, I worry that secular business owners who may oppose SSM are being ignored, and left out in the cold: unable to practice freedom of conscience, for fear of legal sanction; and bereft of the sustaining networks that flow from religious affiliation or identification.

Conclusion

Claiming that the Liberal Party is the primary political guarantor of individual freedoms is to state only the most trivial of truths. The foregoing examination has, I think, made that clear. Yes, it’s probably the case that they are to be (marginally) preferred to the ALP. Yes, they nod in the direction of freedom of religious expression. But if Senator Smith’s bill is anything to go by, then the Coalition is prepared to offer only minimalistic concessions to those in the wedding industry who decline to support SSM. Smith’s proposals are riddled with false conceptions, fallacious elisions and a variety of inconsistencies, giving the lie to his contention that this strikes a fair balance between religious expression and freedom from discrimination. The bill itself fails to properly capture the meaning and scope of religion for so many people, whilst saying nothing at all about other (non-religious) forms of opposition to SSM. All told, it makes too large a concession to the idea of “unjust” discrimination, resulting in many of the flaws I have noted. Coalition promises in this regard need to be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt. On so many issues (think the debate around 18C of the RDA, for example), they have shown themselves to be lacking in moral and intellectual fiber. This isn’t to say that the Liberals don’t have men and women of integrity working for it. I think of people like Andrew Hastie, Tim Wilson and James Paterson, who all evince a robust and sincere commitment – not mere rhetorical badge-making – to our society’s fundamental freedoms. But the party as a whole seems to have drifted away from its ideological moorings, whether through fear or a simple lack of intellectual sustenance. Moreover, the wholesale evacuation of Christianity from modern Australian culture – and with it, the attendant rise in religious illiteracy – means that concerns regarding encroachments upon freedom of religion are more likely to be met with a bemused impatience. Present claims notwithstanding, not even the Liberal Party is immune to such developments. I’m skeptical, then, of the notion that voting strategically for change will help proponents of traditional marriage salvage anything more than a narrow, restricted – and largely token – band of rights.

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One comment

  1. Thanks to Scott for this well-elaborated discussion raising many issues that are obviously uncomfortable for Senator Smith’s Liberal Party SSM faction. It is also gratifying to read a Christian political view on this issue. Let there be more of them.
    As Christians in this country continue to think in a biblically-principled way about what Jesus Himself taught us about marriage and how that should shape our discipleship, our political understanding might be advanced by reflecting upon the seeming inevitability of SSM’s inevitability.
    Scott is quite right to predicate his argument in this way. The “SSM is inevitable” view did not fall out of heaven but has continued to gain political momentum since 2004 when bi-partisan changes were made to the Marriage Act. We haven’t heard any attempt from “both sides” of politics explain either why they then endorsed their bipartisan agreement for the changes to the Marriage Act or why they now walk away from defending the Marriage Act as it stands. Presumably they have so privatised their view(s) of marriage that they now wish to endorse such views with a Government-led privatisation of marriage as a public institution based on civil rights. Is not this failure of both the Liberal Coalition and the Labor Party the source, or at least a good part of the ground, from which “SSM inevitability” has grown?
    Given that these domineering parties do not explain their changed political approach to this important legislative issue, it is they who have engineered the Australian electorate – with the help of the compliant mass media – to think that SSM is inevitable. And so we uncover “another side” of SSM inevitability – it is part of a blatantly bi-partisan populist cowardice.
    Both sides of politics are now thoroughly imbued with the mistaken notion, that has also taken hold in the Australian electorate, that marriage is a civil right. They may not have said so directly, but that is what all the to-ing and fro-ing is about. How can Jesus’ teaching about marriage be set forth if marriage is considered in law to be a civil right? Will it not be viewed as mere hate speech?
    The presumed inevitability of SSM is actually an expression of a way of life based upon a idolatrous religious presupposition that demands that we humans should never be subject to any law that we haven’t made ourselves. Scott’s identification of Enlightenment Humanism as the source of Senator Smith’s attempt to privatise religion into an ever-narrowing corner is therefore very much to the point. And Senator Smith’s SSM views are every bit religious (human autonomy) as those who cannot concede that mistaken view of marriage.

    Bruce

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