Australia has voted for gay marriage – and religious freedom is already in peril

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten speaks at a Melbourne celebration of the Yes vote (Getty)

Last week, in what prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called an “unprecedented exercise in democracy”, 12.7 million Australians (over 80% of eligible voters) voted on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. And the ayes had it, with 7.8 million voting Yes and 4.9 million voting No – a 62-38 split. “Now it is up to us, here in the Parliament of Australia, to get on with it … this year, before Christmas,” the prime minister said.

One week on, No campaigners will still be feeling acute disappointment. The results have proved that the political landscape of the country is a foreign one: there is no “silent majority” of conservatives in Australia.

The existence of a sleeping giant of conservatism was a strong support to No voters during the heated months of the campaign. It was not just wishful thinking: while the Polls indicated a Yes victory, a study from Griffith University predicted a slim No victory just weeks before the result. The Yes campaign was strong, vocal, incessant, but still wary.

This is no longer the case. The results of the plebiscite prove that for every Australian household that holds a traditional view of marriage, the neighbours on either side disagree. As one No voter said to me: “I have never felt so much in the minority as I have today.”

Within minutes of the announcement, #LoveWins posters and banners spread across the country’s virtual and non-virtual walls. Entire streets of Sydney and Melbourne (the highest Yes electorates in the country, recording 83.7% ‘Yes’ majorities in each), were filled with people hugging, crying, dancing and partying. Sydney’s Hyde Park hosted a “joyous celebration that continued into the night” – a generous euphemism on the behalf of Sydney Morning Herald for what can be more accurately described as a Mardi-Gras-on-New-Year’s-party, with partygoers kissing and stripping as the night wore on. Opposition leader Bill Shorten attended a party on the steps of Melbourne’s State Library while Lygon Street, Melbourne’s Little Italy, was covered in rainbows and glitter.

Prime minister Turnbull caught the general mood when he said: “The Australian people have spoken in their millions … They voted Yes for fairness. They voted Yes for commitment. They voted Yes for love.”

But if 7.8 million Australians voted ‘yes’ for fairness and love, does this mean that 4.9 million Australians voted for unfairness and hate? While the prime minister himself doesn’t draw this conclusion, the last few months have revealed that many others are willing to draw it.

There is a new morality on the rise in Australia and this morality sees same-sex marriage as the social justice victory of the 21st century – the grandchild of the suffragette or abolitionist movements. This is reflected in the minimal, and dismissive, attitude towards religious freedom contained in the Marriage Amendment (Definitions and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by Western Australian Liberal MP Dean Smith, which parliament is now considering.

The Smith Bill allows religious professionals (such as clergy, pastors, imams and rabbis) the right to refuse to marry a same-sex couple, but it offers no protection for individuals, businesses or organisations with a traditional view. It does not extend to parent’s rights to remove their children from lessons teaching non-traditional views.

No campaigners are moving to minimise the consequences of the Bill. Lyle Shelton, Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, said: “We will now do what we can to guard against restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of religion, to defend parents’ rights, and to protect Australian kids from being exposed to radical LGBTIQ sex and gender education in the classrooms.”

However, for the growing group of moralists who view themselves as the new suffragettes, legal exemption to marry same-sex couples “on religious grounds” seems about as reasonable to deny women the vote “on religious grounds”.

For a growing number, religious freedom is shorthand for freedom to discriminate. As Attorney-General George Brandis put it: “If it’s legally and morally wrong to discriminate against one gay person, I don’t know how it becomes right to discriminate against two”.

In practice, religious freedom and same-sex marriage is a combination more like oil and water than many politicians are willing to admit.

Liberal MP, James Paterson, a Yes voter, attempted a compromise by submitting an alternative Bill which offered robust protection for religious individuals, organisations, businesses and parents. Paterson’s Bill would have ensured that the change to the Marriage Act only affected same-sex couples wishing to marry, something repeatedly assured by the Yes campaign. However, Paterson withdrew the Bill for consideration on 15 November, the same day the result was announced.

While many are dismayed at Paterson’s move, it is not a surprise, because for the growing number of Brandis-esque Australians, this level of religious freedom would be the moral equivalent of allowing 4.9 million Australians to preach misogyny. Oil and water.

In his introduction to the Bill, Senator Smith said that “what religious people fear has very little to do with laws – but everything to do with culture.” If he is right, then two-thirds of Australians just voted for a new culture.

The question is; will the Smith Bill limit itself to allowing same-sex couples to legally marry? Or has Australia just voted its Judeo-Christian foundations, and thereby its religious freedoms, away with a “Yes”?

In the spirit of Advent, we wait till Christmas to find out.