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George Brandis says ‘no harm’ in including statement in gay marriage bill to protect religion

Parents could be allowed to remove their children from classes where non-traditional marriage is taught, under a major addition to the same sex marriage bill being considered by Attorney General George Brandis.

Senator Brandis on Monday told the ABC's Q&A program that the private bill put forward by Liberal Senator Dean Smith to change the Marriage Act could include a "declaratory statement" in line with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

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Same-sex marriage: religious protections

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Debate has turned to religious protections within the same-sex marriage legislation but the PM says Australians are already adequately protected under the constitution.

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Same-sex marriage: religious protections

Debate has turned to religious protections within the same-sex marriage legislation but the PM says Australians are already adequately protected under the constitution.

That article states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."

Section four of article 18 says: "The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."

Senator Brandis said while he "completely rejects" the No campaign's claim that religious freedoms would be affected he wanted to provide reassurance to those who voted No.

"I think it will do no harm to have a declaratory statement in the bill based on the language of article 18 of the ICCPR to the effect that nothing in the bill can limit or take away from a person's right to manifest their religious faith by worship, practise, observance or teaching," he said.

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"Now if we introduce those words they'll make no difference whatsoever to the right of same sex people to marry but they might provide a level of reassurance to those who were not convinced to vote yes."

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Senator Brandis did not make it clear if the declaratory statement would reflect all four clauses of article 18 of the ICCPR.

George Brandis told the ABC's Q&A program that the private bill could include a "declaratory statement" in line with ...
George Brandis told the ABC's Q&A program that the private bill could include a "declaratory statement" in line with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Photo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Later in the program, he added: "What I'm proposing is that we pick up some of the descriptive words of a particular clause in the ICCPR about religious freedom, not to make it the foundation of a right but merely as a protection to make it clear that nothing in the bill to legalise same sex marriage limits or derogates from the right of people to manifest worship or religious practise or teaching."

"You can have religious freedom and you can have same sex marriage and by Christmas we'll have both," he said.

Senator Dean Smith speaks during debate on the Marriage Amendment bill.
Senator Dean Smith speaks during debate on the Marriage Amendment bill. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The Western Australian backbencher and prominent No campaigner Andrew Hastie told Fairfax Media the Attorney-General's comments were a "good step in the right direction" but said parents rights needed to be protected by law and not just a declaratory statement.

"A declaratory statement does not constitute an actual protection," Mr Hastie said.

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie said the Attorney-General's comments were a "good step in the right direction".
Liberal MP Andrew Hastie said the Attorney-General's comments were a "good step in the right direction". Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"Therefore the question remains: will parents and faith-based schools be able to opt out of state or territory mandated curriculum that runs contrary to their moral and religious convictions?

"I'm of the view parents and faith-based schools should have that protection, particularly as it relates to their views on marriage."

Conservatives sceptical

Fairfax Media spoke to several key conservatives who welcomed the Attorney General's intervention but said more detail was needed. They remained sceptical Senator Brandis, a moderate and Yes supporter, would enshrine parent's rights in law.

Dean Smith's bill to legalise same sex marriage would allow religious officers to refuse to officate gay weddings.

Last week conservatives put forward a now-abandoned rival bill which would have gone much further and protected private citizens, like small business owners such as florists and bakers, from anti-discrimination action if they refused to sell goods for weddings on religious grounds.

That bill, proposed by Liberal Senator James Paterson, also would have allowed for parents to remove their children from classes if the were being taught material which conflicted with their family's religious views.

Key conservatives who want religious protections enshrined in law alongside the same sex marriage changes believe it is more important to protect parents rights compared to protections for bakers, florists and photographers and are likely to concede on anti-discrimination measures.

Senator Brandis has strongly rejected the idea that a wedding could be discriminated against simply because it involves two gay people.

Ahead of the announcement of the same sex marriage postal survey, Senators Eric Abetz and David Fawcett told Fairfax Media they would be attempting to amend Senator Smith's bill themselves, when it is debated next week.

Delay won't affect timing of the same sex marriage

Labor and the Greens flagged they would be highly unlikely to support such Senator Brandis' proposed declaratory statement although the opposition did not completely rule out the prospect.

"We first need to see [the amendments]," Labor's Brendan O'Connor said. "It would have to be a compelling case for Labor to want to see any changes to what was a bill that was an outcome of cross-party conversation and discussions."

Greens Senator Janet Rice said amendments to the Smith bill was "unnecessary" and said civil celebrants should not be allowed to refuse to solemnise a marriage of two gay people.

"The UN doesn't say you can be free to discriminate," she said.

Earlier on Monday the government announced it would cancel next weeks' scheduled sitting of the House of Representatives. The government is missing two of its MPs, the former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and the member for Bennelong John Alexander, who are fighting byelections after being forced to quit parliament over the dual citizenship crisis.

Also appearing on Q&A Labor's Brendan O'Connor said the cancellation could lead to the same sex marriage bill being delayed, contradicting the prime minister's promise that it would be law by Christmas.

But Senator Brandis denied this saying that the bill, which has originated in the Senate, was always due for debate next week in the upper chamber and not until the week after in the lower house.

But this removes the ability for the lower house to seek amendments to the bill as the senate would not be sitting for it to receive back any amended bill, before it is formally given royal assent by the governor-general and made law.

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