Same-sex marriage becoming legal in 2017 was an embarrassing defeat for the political right. Since then, Australia’s rightwing ideologues have taken a new tack. Equality for queer Australians, they declare, is an assault on “religious freedom.” This position has support at the highest level of government. Just a week after voters resoundingly said “Yes” to marriage equality in 2017, the Prime Minister charged conservative politician Philip Ruddock to “review” whether the country’s laws “adequately” protect freedom of religion.
Of particular note: all Australian churches are currently entitled to hire and fire on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and can even expel or reject such students in religious schools.
The “review” proposed three draft bills publicized in late August; worst fears have been confirmed. Those in the line of fire include queer and gender non-conforming teachers and students, people seeking abortion, unmarried mothers, same-sex couples, people with disabilities, and many more. The bills override every other anti-discrimination law in the country.
At press time, the government is close to bringing the bills before Parliament. It aims to have the new laws enshrined in law by Christmas.
It’s not new. Since the British invasion, Australia’s past is replete with attempts to legislate out of existence queer Australians, their relationships and their safety.
The criminal offence of homosexuality did not end throughout Australia until 1997, when the state of Tasmania repealed its sodomy laws. Nearly a decade later, in 2004, the government amended existing law to explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman, clearly an attempt to head off potential court challenges leading to same-sex marriage or civil unions. It took 13 years of intense grassroots campaigning to overturn.
Attacks by ultra-conservative organisations, such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), against tentative moves by state governments to support queer Australians expose the relentless nature of this offensive. The trans community has taken some of the heaviest blows, such as the hysterical reaction to Victoria’s anti-bullying school programs and gender identification reforms.
Back to the straitjackets. Though the LGBTIQ community has borne the brunt of attacks, they are not the only targets. The über right believes society must return to its “family values,” capitalism’s bedrock. The system’s rulers want women back at homebound, reproductive duties and LGBTIQ folks in closets. They are deploying religious reaction to crack the whip on those rebelling and winning marriage equality and abortion rights, or demanding recognition as nonconforming genders.
Australia’s religious far right has always focussed on curtailing rights for women, children, and terminally ill people who seek euthanasia. This broader agenda is evident in the actions of the Australian Christian Lobby. The most prominent anti-LGBTIQ crusader in Australia, this group has since 1995 targeted “ultra-feminists,” “noisy, dangerous minority lobbies foisting anti-family, trendy philosophies on the rest of the country” — all promoters of “sodomy and other perversions.” Furthermore, for the ACL, freedom of religion only applies to Christians. It organises extensively against certifying Islamic halal foods, for example.
In their quest to protect white, gender conforming, patriarchal supremacy, the Australian Christian Lobby and its cohorts find common cause with their supposedly secular counterparts. In 2016 the Family First Party — strongly linked to the South Australian Pentecostal church — and the right-libertarian Liberal Democratic Party co-sponsored a federal bill to water down existing anti-racist legislation.
These groups are united in a secular-religious marriage of convenience. Their shared mission? To make Australia a place where everyone who isn’t a white, straight, able-bodied, Christian man knows their inferior place.
We can beat this. Freedom of religion is the inalienable right of people to practice their religion, free from codified bigotry and fear of persecution. It is the right of First Nations to practice their traditional beliefs, Hindus to fully participate in public life, Muslims to congregate without fear of massacre, Jews to live free from anti-Semitic violence.
Australians inhabit one of the world’s most non-religious countries. In a 2017 WIN-Gallup poll, for example, nearly two in three people identified as atheist or not religious. In census data, 33 percent identify as “no religion,” making this the largest demographic. The Australian religious right is playing to a very narrow base. A recent Guardian survey found that 64 percent oppose using “religious freedom” to cover for hate speech. Even among supporters of the ruling rightwing government spearheading this drive, only 44 percent support a “religious freedom” bill.
The ground is set for a major battle. Throughout August, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane came out in large protests, mobilised by the LGBTIQ community, the first to recognise the danger. In Melbourne, Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women stood with the diverse crowd of queer protesters, which included members of the Independent Education Union.
The targets of the far right are many and must resist being segregated. The most effective fightback is a united front of all unions and everyone earmarked by this legislation. Bigots, religious or not, have no right to discriminate.
These religious supremacy bills are licenses to victimise. They are designed to strip rights from queer people, women, people of colour, unions, and immigrants, and to prevent a militant campaign to extend human rights and dignity. Workers of every sexuality, gender and colour must resist these bills, and press their leaders to take a firm stand. It’s about our rights to hold a job, organise in the work place, seek the services we need, and live as we want without free-ranging bigots.
The author is a bisexual man, practising Anglican, and a founding member of the anti-fascist united front organization PUSH. Send comments to FSnews@mindspring.com.