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Australia’s Postal Survey on Same-Sex Marriage


By Hoa Trung Dinh SJ

A postal survey on same sex marriage was conducted by the Federal Government of Australia between 12 September and 7 November 2017.  The survey asked eligible persons on the federal electoral roll to answer one question, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

It proved to be a deeply divisive issue for Australian society, and particularly for Catholics.

While most young Catholics see this in terms of marriage equality, many Church leaders see this as a direct attack on the institution of marriage which is at the core of a civil society. 

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, wrote in his pastoral letter in August 2017, “We sincerely believe that there is a core and fundamental wisdom and truth in the traditional definition and understanding of marriage that should not be ignored and is worth keeping for the health and future of our society.”  While affirming the dignity of all those who identify as having same sex orientation, Archbishop Hart maintains, “the Catholic Church will continue to teach and preach the truth that marriage is a union of one man and one woman and encourage all people of good will to embrace the fullness of that truth.”

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher began his article on The Daily Telegraph on September 8, 2017 with this, “Marriage is taking quite a beating right now. Many people are muddled about what marriage is, have lost confidence in its achievability, or have given up even trying.”  While acknowledging – with Pope Francis – that “many people with same-sex attraction are hurting and feel alienated from Church and society” Archbishop Fisher pointed to the fact that people who believe in traditional marriage are now suffering discrimination in Australia.  He expressed concern that church institutions such as schools, hospitals and welfare agencies will be bullied for supporting traditional marriage in the current climate where “Faithophobic slurs are now all too common”.

Paramatta Bishop Vincent Long Nguyen expressed a more nuanced view on this issue.  In his pastoral letter dated 13 September 2017, he wrote, “It is important to remember from the very outset that the postal survey is about whether or not Australians want the legal definition of civil marriage changed to include same-sex couples. It is not a referendum on sacramental marriage as understood by the Catholic Church.”  He concludes, “Catholics, in keeping with the tradition of the Church, are asked to exercise their consciences, ensuring that they are informed as they come to exercise their democratic rights in the coming postal survey.”

Jesuit lawyer and public advocate Fr Frank Brennan put emphasis on the legal protection of religious freedom for Australians.  It is the freedom of religious personnel not to conduct same sex marriages.  It is also the protection for employees, protection for churches as employers and property holders, protection for churches as educators, and protection for parents and guardians wanting to teach their children according to their religious faith or wanting to spare their children teachings inconsistent with their religious faith.  Fr Brennan wrote, “The Marriage Act amendments need to include adequate protection for freedom of religion in the conduct of marriage ceremonies. Other issues of religious freedom should be dealt with by the tweaking of existing legislation such as the Fair Work Act and the Sex Discrimination Act.”

On 15 November, the results of the postal survey were released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  Of the 12,727,920 Australians who responded to the survey, 7,817,247 (61.6%) answered “Yes”, and 4,873,987 (38.4%) answered “No”. 

On 7 December 2017, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 was passed in Parliament.  In the Act, marriage is defined as “the union of two people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.  The Act upholds the right of religious ministers to refuse to marry a same-sex couple if same-sex marriage is contrary to their religious beliefs, or the beliefs of their church.

Churches or religious organisations will be allowed to refuse access to their facilities if they are being used for a same-sex marriage if the wedding does not conform to their religious views of marriage.

No doubt contentious issues related to same sex marriage will demand public attention in the context of work relations, health and aged care services, and school education for years to come.  The Church will certainly have a role in leading the public toward greater respect and justice for all if She is attuned to the promptings of the Spirit amidst the signs of the time.