Freedom of religion has wrongly and unfairly been used to deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian Australians and must be strongly resisted, Labor frontbencher Penny Wong has said.
In a rallying call for the separation of church and state, the South Australian senator blasted religious fundamentalists for limiting the freedom of “those who do not ‘conform’ to their views”.
“Religious freedom means being free to worship and to follow your faith without suffering persecution or discrimination for your beliefs. It does not mean imposing your beliefs on everyone else,” Senator Wong told the NSW Labor Lawyers gathering on Tuesday night.
“And it most emphatically does not mean deploying the power of the state to enforce one set of religious beliefs. One’s own views should not determine the rights of others.”
In particular, Senator Wong criticised commentators who have sought to strip the element of “love” from marriage and recast it as fundamentally a vehicle for procreation.
Such a view – memorably espoused by Liberal MP Ian Goodenough during a parliamentary debate last year – would not resonate with the majority of Australians, Senator Wong said.
“The problem in all of this is the application of religious belief to the framing of law in a secular society,” she said.
“This leads not only to confusion, but also to inequity. Liberal democracy is not compatible with fundamentalism of any description, whether ideological or spiritual.”
Senator Wong, who raises two children with her partner, Sophie, and attends the Uniting Church, said secularism was a strong bulwark against all forms of extremism, but securing rights for all Australians remained a work in progress thanks to religion.
“Religion-based moral codes continue to limit the freedoms and the rights of those who, in the view of religious groups, do not ‘conform’ to their views,” she said.
“In advocating, and indeed proselytising, their own views, they too often restrict and constrain the rights of others.”
The Frank Walker Memorial Lecture, delivered by Senator Wong in Sydney on Tuesday night, is in honour of the former NSW attorney-general and Aboriginal land rights champion.
Senator Wong, Labor’s Senate leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman, also used the speech to call for a “vigilant” response to right-wing attempts to curb inclusive initiatives such as Safe Schools.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should have “shown more character and courage” when the anti-bullying program came under attack from conservative ideologues, she said.
Gay people should not be expected to show gratitude for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, nor should they settle for “tolerance”, Senator Wong told the audience.
“Why should the gay and lesbian community be merely ‘tolerated’ when the heterosexual community takes for granted ‘acceptance’ and recognition of their sexual preference as ‘the norm’?” she asked.
Marriage equality has largely disappeared from the political agenda in the wake of the federal budget, though some within the Coalition retain hope a plebiscite might yet be legislated.
Others believe the Liberal Party should agree to a free vote for all MPs, which would probably see same-sex marriage become law, but would anger conservatives and many in the Nationals.
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