Earlier this month, Australia released the long-awaited results of its national postal survey on marriage equality, with almost 62 percent of the public – and a majority in every one of Australia’s states and territories – voting Yes on the question. Lawmakers have pledged to swiftly codify that result into law, with Senator Dean Smith introducing a bill to legalize marriage equality almost immediately after the results were announced.
Yet as proponents prepare legislation to enshrine marriage equality into law, opponents are already pushing exemptions that would allow those who disagree with marriage equality to refuse to recognize same-sex couples. The "No" camp has already floated proposals to allow government officials to opt out of performing same-sex marriages and exempt business owners and service providers from nondiscrimination laws if they do not want to serve same-sex couples.
This strategy is being used around the globe as people embrace marriage equality. Earlier this month, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a US-based group that has supported the criminalization of same-sex activity, defended discredited “conversion therapies” for minors, and fought to exclude transgender youth from sharing gendered spaces. At the gathering, Abbott warned the crowd that the drive toward marriage equality threatened religious freedom and would be used “oppressively” against people who opposed it.
Abbott is not the only official traveling abroad to promote this argument. Many Americans remember Kim Davis, the clerk in a rural Kentucky county who, after the US Supreme Court gave same-sex couples the right to marry, refused to issue them marriage licenses, citing her religious objections. In October, the evangelical non-profit Liberty Counsel arranged for Davis to travel to Romania, where she called marriage equality an attack on religious freedom and used her own story to urge voters in an upcoming national referendum to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
Despite the fact that more than two dozen countries have embraced marriage equality, the argument that religious objections should trump LGBT equality is gaining steam globally, with worrying consequences for human rights.
First, the kinds of religious exemptions that Abbott and Davis and the "No" faction in Australia are advocating go far beyond what is necessary to protect the freedom of religion and belief. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly clarified that freedom of religion does not justify discrimination against women, adherents to other religions, non-believers, and other groups – a point that the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, underscored at an event on faith and sexuality at the United Nations last month.
Rather than protecting human rights, sweeping religious exemptions function in practice as a license to discriminate. They elevate personal prejudice above laws that aim to protect everyone from discrimination. In the process, they not only jeopardize the rights of LGBT people, but the principle that underlies non-discrimination law more generally – that people should not be turned away or treated unfairly because of who they are.
But there is another reason these campaigns are so worrying. Abbott and Davis haven’t only used faith-based arguments to justify limited exemptions to marriage equality. Instead, they’ve cited them in campaigns to deny same-sex couples access to marriage across the board.
Neither Australia nor Romania is considering laws that would compel churches to marry same-sex couples. To the contrary, the marriage equality bill in Australia specifies that religious ministers cannot be compelled to marry same-sex couples. Of course, even without such provisions, churches in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere can’t be forced to marry same-sex couples under existing law. In these circumstances, using freedom of religion as a weapon to deprive LGBT people of any partnership recognition at all is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.
If the United States is any indication, proponents of religious exemptions are unlikely to stop at marriage. Since same-sex couples won the right to marry, many states have enacted laws that permit adoption and foster care providers, counselors, landlords, and others to turn LGBT people away, citing religious beliefs. When the law excuses discrimination in one aspect of daily life, that “exception” can end up swallowing the rule.
As figures like Abbott and Davis globalize these campaigns, it is important to remember that there is never a human rights argument in favor of discrimination. The diversity of faiths and beliefs should be celebrated, and lawmakers around the globe have experimented with inventive strategies to accommodate religion under the law. But when religion becomes a blunt tool to deny rights to LGBT people, women, racial and religious minorities, and other marginalized groups, those who care about human rights have good reason to become concerned.