Religious freedom and its potential impact on organized religion are being discussed as the debate over marriage equality intensifies in the wake of the postal survey. What would happen to Christian churches if the federal government changed the definition of marriage?
Nothing. Australian law gives religious organizations the freedom to use their marriage rituals and doctrines at weddings that are held in their buildings or by their celebrants. The law allows for all religions to practice their own principles and marriage rituals. However, the focus of this article will be Christianity.
Further reading: To Christians arguing ‘no’ on marriage equality: the Bible is not decisive
Religious celebrants are authorized to marry through their churches or religious organizations and can only do so according to those organization’s respective policies.
This is not the same as the accreditation process for civil celebrants. As an ordained Uniting Church Minister, I will not be allowed to marry same-sex partners even if civil law changes unless my Church also decides to change their policy.
To be married in the Anglican Church, one member of the couple must be a Christian.
In the Roman Catholic Church, neither spouse can have been previously married and divorced. The Catholic Church maintained its divorce view even after no-fault divorce became law in the secular world in 1975. This is still the case.
The Greek Orthodox Church requires that the couple be baptized in the Orthodox tradition. However, they will sometimes allow one member of the pair who is of another Christian denomination to be allowed to be baptized as long as it is by a male minister.
Some synagogues also require that both parties show proof of their Jewishness, while others may allow interfaith marriages.
In addition to the official church policy, clergy can also exercise their discretion in marriage. Suppose a couple is deemed to be too young, unprepared, has made a rash decision, or is suspected of any abuse. In that case, the clergy can refuse to marry the couple or insist that they undergo counseling or similar.
Religious freedoms for clergy protect such discretion.
Further reading: Without proper protections, same-sex marriage will discriminate against conscientious objectors
Recently, we witnessed the case of a Victorian Presbyterian minister who refused to marry a couple because of their views on marriage equality. While I disagree with the decision of the clergyman in question, he is free to refuse on these grounds.
The Prime Minister, who said that his protection is guaranteed under Australian law.
Churches have the right to marry or marry not whomever they choose. This is part of the religious freedom.
The Australian civil marriage law has changed many times over the past 120 years. Religious organizations are free to perform marriages in accordance with their traditions.
Further reading: Breaking news: marriage has very little to do with religion (and vice versa)
While nothing will have to change for the Church and therefore there is nothing to fear from a change to civil law, religious organisations are faced with a new opportunity should civil law change. It is an invitation to revisit their marriage policies and consider whether or not they want to extend their respective religious marriages to same-sex couples.
Two Christian churches made the same decision after same-sex marriage became legal in the US. In 2015, the Episcopal Church General Assembly granted permission to clergy to perform same-sex marriages according to the conscience of their regional bishops.
The policy change was not prescriptive but rather permissive.
The US Presbyterian Church amended its marriage policy in the same year to state that marriage is “a unique commitment between two people – traditionally a man & woman – to love & support each other throughout their lives”. The policy allows Presbyterian clergy to marry couples of the same gender, but it clearly states that clergy cannot be forced to perform such marriages.
There are many more examples around the globe, but the majority of Christian churches still marry same-sex pairs.
Religious freedom is a serious issue that cannot be taken lightly. However, it should not be exaggerated. When it comes to those working in secular spaces or religious private schools, the dynamics described are very different.
It is also clear that no official church leader can be forced in Australia to marry people against their own policies. No church will have to change any of its marriage rituals, doctrines, or policies.
I do hope that some churches will embrace the idea of extending Christian marriage blessings to all couples who are committed.