The push for changing the definition of marriage has been an ongoing debate in Australia for a number of years, and it’s certainly an issue that is very polarising. Earlier this year the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia created a booklet and resources to help members understand the Church’s position on the debate, which are available online at https://adventist.org.au/marriage/.
Last week the Australian Government announced a postal plebiscite would be held on the issue. This is a voluntary vote, therefore it is important that you ensure that you are eligible to vote and that your details are up-to-date. You can check your electoral details at http://www.aec.gov.au/enrol/. We want to encourage you to make an intentional decision to vote and to be informed about the consequences of changing the definition of marriage.
As we interact with others on this issue, we must do so with love and respect. Many people have called for this to be a respectful debate. As Christians we need to be at the forefront of modelling Christ’s character to everyone, even though we may disagree with the other person’s point of view. In addition to demonstrating love and respect, let’s pray for those engaging in the public debate, and for those who may feel marginalised or upset by the nature and process of this debate. There is no doubt that some people will feel very vulnerable at this time, and we need to find opportunities to minister to them.
We believe a change to the definition of marriage will dramatically re-shape our nation and have consequences for children and freedom of religion. Despite what some may say, and despite the current traditional definition of marriage, there has already been a significant shift, driven by various forces, to restrict freedom of speech for those who disagree with the push to change the definition of marriage. This push to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of religion has been recently demonstrated by the actions of the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal in Tasmania summoning two Christian pastors for sharing their views on marriage in a public place and, among other things, quoting Bible verses. This follows a series of events earlier this year where there were campaigns to remove Christians from their corporate and public positions for holding a traditional view of marriage.
"There has already been a significant shift, driven by various forces, to restrict freedom of speech for those who disagree with the push to change the definition of marriage."
As we have seen recently in the Queensland public education system, there have been moves to restrict freedom of religion in the playground, to the point that even the exchange of Christmas cards was to be forbidden. Due to public pressure, Education Department leaders softened their stance. It is unlikely that their views have changed; rather they recognised that they overstepped on this issue.
The cross-party Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, which reported earlier this year, considered the Government’s initial amending legislation. It indicated in its conclusion that, “There was broad agreement that any future legislation to amend the Marriage Act should ensure religious freedoms are appropriately protected when considering changes that extend access to marriage to all adult couples.”
To this point, there have been no policies developed by the Government to provide such positive protections. If the Government were to proceed on a proposed private member’s bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, circulated only last week, there would be clear concerns as, despite its name, the protections for religious freedom are very narrow.
Mark Spencer of Christian Schools Australia expressed it well when he stated, “It is however clear that should legislation be enacted to change the definition of marriage, careful attention is required to understand and deliver a balanced outcome that respects the human rights of all Australians if the nation is to continue to be a tolerant and plural society where a diversity of views is not only legal but valued.”
Mr Spencer is concerned that unless such legislation is put in place, then there is no protection or guarantee for schools that staff can be expected to model an approach to marriage consistent with the doctrines, tenets or beliefs taught within that Christian school (or even a church). At this stage the longer term consequences of changing the definition of marriage are unknown, but as we look overseas, there is reason for concern.
Seventh-day Adventists believe, as stated in fundamental belief 23, that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that this belief has its origins in the Garden of Eden. In addition to producing our own series of resources, the Coalition for Marriage has released some excellent materials on its website http://www.coalitionformarriage.com.au. The Coalition for Marriage is a coalition of likeminded people that exists solely on donations. Should you wish to donate, you can do so via their website.
In summary, we feel it is important, as Australians and as Christians, that we pray for this process. Further, we need to be enrolled to vote and make an intentional decision to cast our vote. In order to have an educated vote, we need to be informed about the consequences of changing the definition of marriage, including significant risks to freedom of speech and freedom of religion in Australia. We seek God’s guidance and leading for all Australians, no matter their views on the marriage debate, and should we engage in any discussion, to do so with love and respect.
Pastor Michael Worker is secretary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia (AUC) and chair of the AUC Religious Freedom Steering Committee.