Battle for Equality Down Under

By Cecilia Godoy

For the past couple of months, Australia has seen complications in its legal battle to change its constitutional definition of marriage and finally legalize same-sex marriages. It has been a long process, “a national vote was first proposed by the government in 2015 when Australia was already far behind many other English-speaking nations” and the definitive answer should be known by November 15. Even though Australia has had a difficult history accepting and respecting same-sex romantic relations, the majority of Australians are united in their support for marriage equality and the change to the Commonwealth Law. Namely, the opposition has been led by forces in politics and in churches.

In 2004, then-prime minister, John Howard changed the Marriage Act to clarify the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, strictly discriminating against partnerships that did not fall under that description. This was the first spark that ignited the fight for equal marriage rights and that has seen a lot of scrutiny in the political process even since.  After years of having conservative leadership, in 2015 “Tony Abbott announced there would be a national vote, or plebiscite, to decide the future of marriage equality”[1]. There were two attempts at passing legislation, in 2016 and 2017, but they were rejected for lack of support from the Labour and Green Parties. Finally, after the last failed attempt to pass it through a parliamentary vote, the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull decided he "would instead hold a national postal vote”[2].

Now that the political blockade has been dealt with, the referendum has seen growing opposition from religious communities over the last couple of weeks. The postal vote to legalize same sex marriage has been seized on by church leaders in the once predominantly Christian country. Even though religious belief has been on the steady decline in the country, religious leaders see this as a deciding moment in the country’s history in terms of preserving the sanctity of marriage as well as the Christian faith itself. Another more important reason is, if Australians vote yes on the referendum, "this could potentially lead to a weakening of the church’s power and influence in an increasingly secular society"[4], which visibly goes against church interest.  While expressing respect for gay couple’s love, “religious officials assert that if the referendum passes, religious institutions, including churches, hospitals and schools, could come under attack”[3].  Even though 70% of country considers itself Christian, a great majority also believes that same sex marriage should be recognized in a legal and federal setting. According to the advocates of the law, very little will change in terms of the benefits heterosexual couples enjoy.

What appears to be in dispute currently, is the difference between the legal and religious definitions of marriage and the acceptance that the recognition of one does not diminish the other. Not only do homosexual couples deserve the right to not be discriminated against, they also reserve the right to enjoy the same privileges as a heterosexual couple in terms of recognition and financial benefits. Accepting the romantic union between partners of the same sex does not diminish a country’s religious sanctity, but rather highlights the ability to compromise beliefs in pursuit of the greater equality of the population.