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Australia’s marriage equality fight parallels conservative approach in U.S.

They're not waiting around for their own Masterpiece Cakeshop.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft
CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

In a recent national poll, millions of Australians voted overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples. As the country’s Parliament now considers legislation to follow suit, conservatives are already trying to lace the bill with “religious freedom” amendments that directly parallel the fights U.S. conservatives are waging in American courts.

The Australia poll was not close, with 61.6 percent calling for marriage for same-sex couples and 38.4 percent opposing it. Nevertheless, conservatives lawmakers argue that they have to pass a bill “for 100 percent of Australians.” The bill, introduced by Senator Dean Smith, already ensures that religious ministers and chaplains will not have to solemnize or provide accommodations for same-sex couples’ weddings, but the conservatives want far more. So far, there are at least three different proposals that would weaken the bill, if not outright maintain a second-class status for same-sex couples.

Senator George Brandis, who supported the “Yes” campaign for marriage equality, has proposed an amendment that would seemingly expand the exemption in the bill such that even civil marriage celebrants could refuse to solemnize a same-sex couple’s marriage. Brandis’ amendment also adds broad “protection of religious freedom” language that states that nothing in the bill “limits or derogates” any person’s “religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.”

Brandis has said that this language is designed to incorporate a provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” While he did not specify how he imagined this language would change the implementation of the bill, he did say that he worries about opponents of marriage equality becoming “a persecuted minority.”

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Senator Scott Morrison, who supported the “No” campaign against marriage equality, has not filed any official amendments to the bill, but is vying behind the scenes for a provision that would allow parents to remove their children from “safe schools” classes where students might learn about the existence of same-sex marriage or be taught to respect their LGBTQ peers.

And Senator David Leyonhjelm, who actually supported the “Yes” campaign, is championing one of the most restrictive amendments, which would create a nationwide license to discriminate for wedding services providers. “Under this amendment, any business that wishes to specialize in serving either same-sex marriages or heterosexual marriages will be free to do so,” he recently said. Incidentally, Leyonhjelm is bringing white supremacist sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos to address the Parliament House next month.

Some conservatives have conceded that they do not have the votes to advance these amendments, but they are stirring controversy nevertheless — as well as further delaying the passage of marriage equality. A coalition of more than 160 LGBTI organizations and leaders have issued a joint statement calling on Parliament to sidestep the distractions and ensure that marriage equality passes by the end of 2017.

These amendments — particularly Leyonhjelm’s — demonstrate how conservatives across the globe intend to use “religious freedom” to chip away at marriage equality just as they have tried to chip away at abortion rights. In the U.S., the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act” served as the legislative approach to legalizing discrimination, but since it has stalled, conservatives are taking their fight to the courts. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which is about a baker who doesn’t believe he should have to follow a Colorado law requiring him to sell the same wedding cakes to same-sex couples that he sells to different-sex couples.

If the Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBTQ hate group representing the baker, convinces five justices to allow the discrimination, it would mean that LGBTQ people are henceforth doomed to be treated as second-class citizens. Such a decision could possibly also unspool nondiscrimination protections based on other categories like race and religion.

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Likewise, if Australian conservatives actually succeeded in passing Leyonhjelm’s amendment, it would become the first country to have passed nationwide nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and then rescinded them. Fortunately, the odds of that outcome appear to be low.