Open letter on Marriage Equality
The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, supports the right of adult couples in loving and committed relationships to marry, regardless of gender. We also support the right of such couples to have their marriages accorded equal recognition and respect under the law of Australia. Our faith prompts us to recognise the divine in all people. It is a basic Quaker principle that all people are equal in the Spirit.As part of the journey to live our faith, we have worked to support the equal treatment of all persons regardless of sex, race or religion. The way has been hard at times, and we recognise that true equality will always remain a direction to be travelled rather than a destination to be reached.
In 2010 Australian Quakers came together and agreed to celebrate marriages within our Meetings regardless of the sexual orientation or gender of the partners. Quakers have long held that marriage “is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses”. The question before us was simply whether to open our hearts to these marriages that already existed among us. The law currently prevents Quakers from facilitating the same legal recognition for same-sex marriages that we do for other marriages. This legal prohibition is fundamentally inconsistent with Quaker faith and practice.Religious freedom would encompass the freedom to include, celebrate and recognise the commitments of LGBTIQ couples, as both spiritual and legal marriages.
We recognise that everyone will be at a different point in the journey. Some have purported to speak on behalf of all Christians in opposing marriage equality. Such people do not speak for us. We invite them to continue to follow their path with integrity, while asking that they recognize that their way is not for all people of faith. Quakers consider that a majority vote in a voluntary public poll is an inappropriate way to decide the legal rights of minorities who are subject to discrimination. We are also concerned about the impacts on LGBTIQ people, their children and families. We encourage everyone to open their hearts, to choose love over fear, and to support marriage equality in Australia.
On behalf of Friends,
Presiding Clerk, Religious Society of Friends, Quakers in Australia
Vidya, Canberra Regional Meeting
I had the privilege of being in the Australian Senate for the last few hours of debate when they passed the Marriage Equality bill. Watching from the public galleries and the VIP bench were many people who had been active for years, working to bring about this change. This included progressives from many Christian denominations, Jewish people and a family of Sikhs.
Senators drew strength from the 62% vote of the Australian people in support of marriage equality in the postal survey, and the months of work by a group of Liberal backbenchers to develop a carefully written compromise bill based on a Senate Committee report in February 2017. In the last hours, it was clear that most Senators voted against any amendments in order to keep intact the careful balance of introducing equality for LGBTIQ people, allowing freedom of choice for religious marriage celebrants, and protecting our existing anti-discrimination laws.
Dean Smith, the Liberal Senator who worked so hard for this bill to become a reality, gave the last speech before the Senate voted. He spoke of the Lindt café siege and the brave man Tori Johnson who died and that he had a partner Thomas Zinn. He said it was during a flight that he thought about these men and realised it was time that relationships like theirs were recognised. Dean described himself as a conservative and said it is not a role to resist change, but to weigh the evidence.
Following their conscience, 43 Senators voted “Yes” and 12 voted “No”. Some Senators abstained and some were absent.
The bill has now been passed in the House of Representatives, again with no amendments and strongly supported by a conscience vote.
After the vote in the Senate, I spoke to two women from the Uniting Church. Still with tears in their eyes from the last speeches and the passage of the bill, they are preparing to seek change so that LGBTIQ couples in their church can have a religious wedding. When I mentioned that I am a Quaker, one said “You are so far ahead of us!” I said that the conversation among Australian Quakers started 35 years ago.
What can Quakers do now to support LGBTIQ people in Australia? We can support marriage equality in our Meetings, and work to encourage other faith groups to do the same.
Now that the bill has passed in both Houses of Parliament, I hope our Presiding Clerk will sign another open letter expressing our joy at the introduction of marriage equality. This letter could also declare publicly that, in accordance with our Testimony to Equality, there is nothing in the “doctrines, tenets or beliefs” of the Religious Society of Friends that would lead us to make use of religious exemptions to deny equal treatment to LGBTIQ couples.
I hope Quakers across Australia will engage with people of other faiths to support their gentle consideration of solemising LGBTIQ marriages. I hope many faith communities will allow their celebrants to follow their conscience,, and anticipate that this will lead to the joyful religious celebration of the marriage of many LGBTIQ couples over the coming years.
I am concerned that the bill allows “bodies established for religious purposes” to be granted an exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act to allow them to refuse to provide other services related to marriage ceremonies where the marriage does not accord with their religious beliefs. Could this affect Quakers and other faith groups that support marriage equality?
Smaller Quaker Meetings and other faith groups often meet on the premises of another faith. In these venues, we could be prevented from holding wedding ceremonies for LGBTIQ couples in the place that we usually meet for worship.
It seems possible that religious hospitals could also refuse LGBTIQ couples wanting to marry on the premises. This could cause not only distress but also hardship if the couple includes a person who is terminally ill. Could Quakers begin the conversation to ensure hospitals allow LGBTIQ marriages on their premises?
I encourage Friends to be active in the coming months and years to welcome and support the joyful introduction of marriage equality for LGBTIQ people across Australia.
 Marriage celebrants in “recognised denominations” (such as Quakers), already have discretion about whose marriages they solemnise. Ministers in smaller religions that are not from a “recognised denomination” are currently considered to be civil celebrants. Once the bill is passed, the first action for many civil celebrants will be to decide whether or not to register in the new category of “religious marriage celebrants”, so that they may refuse to solemnise marriages that don’t accord with their religious beliefs. Any existing civil celebrant will be able to register as a religious marriage celebrant within 90 days of the law coming into effect. After this, only ministers of religion will be able to register as a religious marriage celebrant.
 The new category of “religious marriage celebrants” will be permitted under the law to celebrate marriages using a ceremony different from that required by their religion. This will allow modified religious marriages for LGBTIQ couples where the faith group as a whole does not yet permit LGBTIQ marriages.
The full text of Dean’s Smith’s introductory speech to the Senate on 16 November 2017:
The full text of Dean’s Smith’s second reading speech to the Senate on 16 November 2017: