The thumping Irish vote for marriage equality is bittersweet for Tasmanian marriage equality supporters.
We watch the Irish celebrate with joy and pride, and we think “that could have been us”.
In 2012 Tasmania had a chance to lead Australia towards a reform that has been called “the civil rights issue of our time”
But instead, a combination of fear and misinformation defeated marriage equality by just two votes in the Upper House.
Now, the Upper House faces another test.
This week it will debate a government bill watering down the Anti-Discrimination Act by allowing faith-based schools to discriminate against children on the grounds of “religious belief” at the time of enrolment.
The arguments are manifold …
The arguments against the bill are manifold. Here’s just some…
- it is likely to be used as cover by religious schools to discriminate against the children of single parents, unmarried couples and same-sex couples, and against young people who are LGBTI, all because they are seen as not conforming to certain “religious beliefs”. This is why I have called it a Bigots’ Charter
- it severely limits the choice parents have about where to send their children to school. This is a choice religious schools are funded by taxpayers to provide. By limiting this choice the government is bringing the whole system of private school funding into question
- it could be used as an excuse not to re-enrol students who question or change their faith, violating their religious freedom
- it will foster a culture of discrimination in religious schools and promote segregation between religious communities and the rest of society
- it will allow religious schools to disrupt the academic careers of students, reducing academic achievement and retention rates
- it takes choice, rights and power away from everyday Tasmanian families and gives them to already-powerful religious authorities (“the Big End of Church” we could call them)
- it sets a precedent of allowing discrimination on the grounds of religion and of watering down one of the world’s best Anti-Discrimination Acts
- it brings us into line with states where there have been appalling examples of discrimination against students and their families by religious schools
- it exempts religious bodies from the standards that apply to everyone else and gives them “special rights”
- it will make the legal situation of religious schools less certain, not more, and will likely lead to embarrassing and protracted anti-discrimination litigation for years to come
- it is likely to violate that section of the Tasmanian Constitution Act that protects all Tasmanians from religious discrimination
What appals me most …
But I think what appals me most is the simple fact that this proposal says it’s okay to discriminate against and disadvantage innocent children. How can the government even conceive of such a thing, let alone want to allow it?
Organisations and advocates across Tasmanian society have condemned the proposed amendment. They include the Law Society, the Children’s Commissioner, the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, the Australian Education Union, the State Schools Association, the Youth Network of Australia, legal academics, the Tasmanian Council of Social Services, the Council for Civil Liberties and every Tasmanian LGBTI organisation.
We can only hope the Upper House listens to such a wide variety of voices. We can also hope it will be consistent in its own decision-making process. In 2012 it voted against marriage equality because of concerns about the welfare of children and concerns about constitutionality. If it fails to act on similar concerns now it will be exposed as a chamber that is really just about defending the prejudices of the powerful.
Worse still, if the Upper House votes for discrimination in the very week Ireland made such a momentum contribution to ending it, Tasmanians will be made to look like fools in the eyes of the world.
In my role as Tasmanian Australian of the Year I have vowed to mount a case to the Supreme Court against this amendment, should it pass.
The legal argument, as mentioned above, will be that allowing religious discrimination violates that section of the Tasmanian Constitution Act, which, uniquely in Australia, protects citizens’ rights to freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination.
Some people have mocked this course of action because the Constitution Act is relatively toothless and the section in question has never been tested in court.
Exactly the same was said when we took a case against Tasmania’s anti-gay laws to the UN Human Rights Committee over twenty years ago.
The critics were proven wrong then, and could be again.
“Christian hater”, “far-left ideologue”, “totalitarian” …
Just as important to me is that our forebears thought it important to protect future generations from religious discrimination and it does them a disservice to allow the rights they bequeathed to us to be dishonoured.
Some people have told me that speaking out as Tasmanian of the Year is an abuse of a title which is meant to recognise past personal achievements, not become a platform to oppose current government policies.
My response is that I was given the honour because I have stood up for equality, inclusion and non-discrimination and it would be betrayal if I stepped back from these principles now.
There has been too much division, segregation and discrimination in Tasmanian history.
There has been too much ignorance, mistrust and prejudice towards particular people because of where they come from, what name they hold, what god they worship and who they love.
My vision, shaped against this awful past, is of a Tasmania where each of us has equal value, opportunity and dignity.
It is this vision of a better Tasmania which drives me to oppose the current Anti-Discrimination amendment, no less than it drove me to support homosexual decriminalisation, the passage of the original Anti-Discrimination Act, relationship law reform, parenting law reform and marriage equality.
“Christian hater”, “far-left ideologue”, “totalitarian” – these are just a few of the epithets slung at opponents of the Anti-Discrimination amendment by local MPs and clergy.
As wrong as they are, I bear them with equanimity if they acknowledge, however perversely, my commitment to Tasmania following the path Ireland now treads.
To send a letter to Upper House members opposing the Anti-Discrimination amendment:
To read a mother’s story about the bullying her gay son endured in a Tasmanian religious school:
To read the concerns of Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Robin Banks:
To read Prof George Williams’ views on protections for religious freedom in the Tasmanian Constitution Act:
Further news reports and opinion pieces:
*Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights, national director of Australian Marriage Equality and 2015 Tasmanian Australian of the Year.
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