There appears to be a great deal of anxiety among many conservatives, including those who run religious organisations, ex-prime ministers and some current legislators, that if same-sex marriage is made legal, freedom of religion will be negatively affected. This strikes me as odd, given that those urging the "yes" vote in the upcoming postal survey on same-sex marriage have not suggested making any changes to the Anti-Discrimination Act.
This anxiety seems to be turning into a panic among some of the proponents of the "no" vote, who are now claiming that if the "yes" vote carries the day, it will become illegal to oppose same-sex marriage in both words and thought! Say what?
Not only can anyone remain opposed to same-sex marriage regardless of the result of the non-binding (there's a clue in that, guys) postal survey, they can continue to speak against it and can certainly think whatever mutinous thoughts they like, and will still be able to even if the Marriage Act is changed. Indeed, if they belong to, run, are employed by or represent a religious organisation, they will continue to be able to discriminate willy-nilly.
As the Commonwealth laws stands (each state also has its own laws) all religious organisations have a statutory exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act. They have had it for decades. Moreover, it is a free-flowing exemption. They can choose to discriminate – or not – on all sorts of rather unspecified grounds.
For example, a faith-based school can employ the gay physics teacher if that is all they can find (there is a chronic shortage) and then fire them when a straight one turns up, no questions asked.
Ministers of religion have always been able to refuse to marry anyone they like (or don't like) in their church and will be able to continue to do so.
That is why Presbyterian minister Steven North was free to cancel a heterosexual wedding booked for November at his Ballarat church, because the bride expressed her support for same-sex marriage on Facebook. His right to discriminate extends to those who merely hold opinions he does not approve of and, whether equal marriage becomes legal or not, he will continue to have that right.
I have no problem with churches keeping their exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act. Those with religious beliefs should be able to exercise their faith as they wish, just as those without faith should be able to live according to their conscience, including getting married. What I don't like is the amorphous and fluid nature of the religious exemptions. It makes it hard for the rest of us to make informed decisions.
Religious organisations should nominate the grounds on which they discriminate – sexual orientation, marital status, reproductive choices, religious belief or lack thereof, speaking in tongues, opinions they don't like, whatever it might be – and display this fact on all job ads, prospectuses, annual reports and advertising material. It is legal, after all.
Even better, if there was clarity around the allowable grounds for discrimination by religious organisations and which ones discriminate in what ways, then it will help relieve unnecessary anxiety around religious freedom when society changes again.
If you claim the right to discriminate, then surely the rest of us have the right to clearly know and understand who will be affected and why.
Jane Caro is a novelist and author