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The next step for same-sex marriage in Australia

On 15 November 2017, the question on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry was answered.

The results from this postal survey are clear: The Australian people have voted to change the Marriage Act. Yet for same-sex marriage to finally be a reality in Australia, Federal Parliament must now move decisively.

On the same day the postal survey results were released, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (the Bill) was formally introduced into parliament and read for the first time by Liberal Party, and openly gay, Senator, Dean Smith.

The Bill aims to advance the civic rights of all Australians by removing existing discrimination from the Marriage Act while protecting religious freedoms. If passed, the Bill would effectively enable same-sex marriage in Australia.

The top priority on the Bill’s reforms is the amendment of the definition of the word “marriage”, replacing “a man and a woman” with the gender-neutral “a union between two people.”

Additionally, section 88E of the Marriage Act would be repealed, which would allow the recognition of same-sex marriages that were, or will be, lawfully entered into in a foreign jurisdiction.

In line with the Bill’s aim to protect religious institutions, the Bill creates a new category of marriage celebrants in Australia, “the religious marriage celebrant”. However, to be officially identify and be recognised as such, they must first register as a “religious marriage celebrant”. These celebrants as well ministers of religion, chaplains and bodies and organisations established for religious purposes may then refuse to officiate same-sex marriage based on religious grounds. Additionally, they may refuse to provide facilities or goods and services for a marriage ceremony. Such a refusal, in prescribed circumstances, would not constitute unlawful discrimination, thereby ensuring that religious institutions cannot be sued if they refuse to marry same-sex couples.

The Bill has cross-party support and is expected to pass. Prime Minister Turnbull has also hinted at wanting to have same-sex marriage legalised by Christmas. However, the Bill will undoubtedly face opposition and potentially a number of amendments.

A number of Senators have already expressed their wish to move amendments to the Bill, the main aim being to extend religious protections. South Australian Liberal Senator David Fawcett has voiced that religious freedoms belong to all Australians, not just the clergy and that the Bill should reflect that. Some believe this could be a way to ease conservative concerns, however others expressed concerns that this could prolong the debate into 2018.

The Bill is currently pending the senate which next sits on 27 November 2017.

More news to come.

Milena Mitic

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