The Diocese of Sydney has told a Senate Inquiry the proposed bill on same-sex marriage does not sufficiently protect freedom of religion.

The Senate inquiry into the exposure draft of the legislation allowing same-sex marriage has been holding public hearings in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra this week. The government has vowed the issue must be put to a plebiscite first, although a bill to enable a public vote was defeated the first time it was introduced into the Senate.

However, the committee is still examining enabling legislation which would be introduced, if a plebiscite were to result in a vote in favour of same-sex marriage.

The Diocese of Sydney made a submission to the public inquiry, and the Chair of the Religious Freedom Reference Group, the Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead, appeared at the inquiry. Bishop Stead was called alongside the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

The proposed bill allows a minister of religion to refuse to solemnise a same-sex marriage for any reason, including if it conflicts with the doctrines of his denomination or his conscientious beliefs. Marriage celebrants may also be exempt and religious bodies and organisations may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services.

Some groups have sought to have conscience provisions removed.

In the submission, Bishop Stead said the Diocese was opposed to the Bill in principle and supported the current legal definition of marriage in the Marriage Act 1961.

"Nonetheless, if marriage between two people of the same sex was made lawful, the proposed amendments to the Marriage Act 1961 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 set out in the Draft Bill do not go far enough to ensure the protection of freedom of religion in Australia." Bishop Stead said.

"The proposed amendments are limited to protections for ministers, civil celebrants and religious organisations in relation to the provision of services for a same-sex wedding ceremony. There is, however, no protection for a religious organisation or individual believer to hold and promote a view about marriage in accordance with their beliefs. If the legal definition of marriage is changed to include same-sex couples, there will remain a very significant proportion of the Australian population who continue to believe that marriage is only between a man and woman. This view of marriage has been repeatedly and overwhelmingly affirmed by the Synod of the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church of Australia, as well as the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. Without explicit protection for those who continue to hold and promote that marriage is between a man and a woman, it is likely that anti-discrimination legislation will be used to silence this point of view in the public sphere." the submission argues.

It points out such problems are already occurring, as shown in Tasmania by a complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, because of a booklet he authorised for distribution in Catholic institutions in Tasmania entitled Don’t Mess with Marriage, which taught that marriage was between a man and a woman.

"Freedom of religion is more than a freedom to worship in private, behind closed doors. It entails a right to manifest those beliefs in the public sphere, to teach those beliefs to one’s children, to promote those beliefs in the public arena, and for religious organisations such as schools and hospitals to be shaped by those beliefs, without those beliefs being curtailed by the threat of the withdrawal of public funding. These freedoms are not protected by the proposed exemptions." Bishop Stead said.

The submission went on to detail areas such as the wedding industry and the public service where people would not be protected for conscientious belief. Likewise, there would be consequences for freedom of association, sex education in schools, professional accreditation and the welfare system.

Bishop Stead said "The amendments proposed in the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill are manifestly insufficient, because they only address issues of participation in same-sex weddings (and even then, inadequately) and they do not address in any way the more fundamental issues that arise from changing the legal definition of marriage to allow same-sex marriage. There are deep and often irresolvable differences over questions of politics, religion, gender and sexuality in the marriage debate. Advocates of both sides of this issue come with confidence in their own convictions, and changing (or not changing) the law won't change these convictions."

Similar comments were made by the cross-denominational group Freedom for Faith, which also argued the exposure draft does not sufficiently address religious freedom.

Its submission said the bill too narrowly focuses on the wedding ceremony and does not consider 'a broader right of anyone to hold religious beliefs'.

Freedom for Faith argues the Bill should recognise religious freedom 'as a positive right rather than as a concessionary exemption'.

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