Opinion | When religious political force crosses the line

MANY ROADS: Will religion or society define our legal and social boundaries?
MANY ROADS: Will religion or society define our legal and social boundaries?

Is the same sex marriage debate about a couple of people of the same sex wanting to legally marry? Not really, it’s a power struggle to determine who defines the boundaries of our culture and laws. Will it be religion, or will it be society?

It’s interesting to even be debating marriage on religious grounds as it’s a secular contract regulated by the state not the church. But, as our society experiences a rapid decline in church attendance, religious political and economic influence is thriving.

Already there is enough religious political force to outsource our social policy through the Same Sex Marriage Postal Survey, undermining the authority of parliament. This isn’t surprising considering that more than a quarter of our federal parliamentary members attend the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship meetings fortnightly.

The government outsources two-thirds of its social services, and 20 of the 25 major NGOs executing these social services are religious organisations. The Catholic church is the nation’s second largest employer, with more than 180,000 Australian employees. 

While these religious organisations provide social services on behalf of the government, they are allowed under ‘religious freedom’ to not only determine what services and information are made available to end users, but to not afford their employees the same anti-discrimination protections the rest of us enjoy. For example, the Catholic church is  threatening to fire teachers, nurses and other employees who marry their same-sex partner if gay marriage is legalised.

God’s love may be conditional when it comes to religious hiring and firing, and that’s a conversation for god and the church. But where the provision of social services on behalf of a secular state is concerned, we are in dire need of correction if discrimination is allowed based on religious sensibilities being offended by people’s marital status, sexual preference, or political views. 

Through this power, religious organisations are not only trying to define our social policy on same sex marriage, they’re working to influence policy on stem cell research, reproductive choice and euthanasia, to name a few.

I should stress that not all religions are against marriage equality, nor are all religious people. Our model of religious pluralism is meant to allow many faith and non-faith voices to put forward their opinions. As a society we analyse and cater to these opinions as long as they do not impose belief over others. But this system ceases to work when any subset of religious belief starts dictating our public policy.

If you’re on the fence about same sex marriage, and you don’t consider yourself a religious person or homophobic, the religious rise should be of great concern to you. I understand a ‘no’ vote may seem attractive if you are concerned about the unintended consequences change may bring. But be assured that change will not affect children, as same sex parents already have children. Nor will it open the flood gates for derogatory behaviour, as marriage is not based on personal autonomy.

The only thing that will make our society and liberal democracy crumble, is to allow a religious ethos to determine public policy. Vote ‘Yes’ and show our politicians that you believe public policy is the business of the Australian Parliament, not a tool to affirm any particular set of religious beliefs over your fellow Australians.

Jacqueline Haines is an atheist and a social entrepreneur who champions sexual and reproductive health and rights.