Australia’s bishops are facing a discrimination complaint about an anti-marriage equality publication they published earlier this year, the latest incident in the nation’s debate over equal marriage rights.
Martine Delaney, a politician who is transgender, filed the complaint with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission in mid-September. She is now seeking conciliation by the Commission rather than a hearing, reported The Catholic Leader.
The Commissioner accepted the complaint initially, affording Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, an opportunity to respond. There is no word on mediation, but Porteous affirmed his openness to such a process, which may include meeting Delaney. He rejected claims the bishops had offended anyone.
The publication in question, a booklet titled “Don’t Mess with Marriage,” was distributed by Porteous to Catholic school students in sealed envelopes. Copies were also provided for distribution to all Catholic institutions in the diocese, accompanying a nationwide release.
Explaining her objections to the bishops’ document to ABC News, Delaney said:
” ‘It makes several statements which suggest that children being raised in same-sex relationships are not healthy’ . . .
” ‘The church is entitled, as we all are, to freedom of speech but there’s an inherent responsibility with that, that you cannot do it in a manner which is offensive and insulting and humiliating.’ “
Criticisms were widespread when the document was released in June, particularly in dioceses like Hobart where schoolchildren were used as couriers to bring it to their parents. LGBT advocate Michael Bayly went as far as calling it a “new low” for the nation’s bishops.
Marriage equality’s status in Australia remains contested, and this complaint is part of larger political conversations. The federal Senate rejected a statement of support for the bishops, reported The Guardian, but the question of free speech remains prominent.
Concerns have been raised about this case by both anti-equality activists and Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is gay and supports marriage equality. Gay News Network quoted Wilson as saying the complaint gave him “chills” for its potential to suppress political speech as Australians prepare for a national referendum on marriage. He said further:
” ‘Understandably, the direction of the Tasmanian case could have a significant impact on the extent of the public debate around marriage for same-sex couples in the lead-up to a plebiscite.’ “
Delaney said her decision to file a complaint was not an attempt to freeze free speech, but rather ensure a balance as there is “an obligation for [bishops] to exercise those rights without causing harm.”
Bishops elsewhere in Australia have criticized the Tasmanian complaint, adding their criticism to their ongoing criticism of marriage equality. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney called it “astonishing and truly alarming.” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, who supported more pastoral language on homosexuality at the Synod on the Family, wondered on Twitter if marriage equality is a “new totalitarianism.”
While there are speculations as to why Australia has yet to extend civil marriage equality, what is clear is that more and more Australians are on board with it. In September elections, the country replaced former prime minister Tony Abbot, an anti-equality Catholic, with Malcolm Turnbull, a pro-equality Catholic but who nonetheless has sustained Abbot’s proposed national referendum on the question.
Many issues are tied into this discrimination complaint and the larger milieu of marriage equality. Those involved will sort through political and legal considerations, but what needs to be recognized, too, is the pastoral aspect.
A bishop shepherds all the faithful in their diocese, not just the Catholics whose political leanings pair well with the current occupant’s ideology. Whether or not Australian bishops violated Tasmanian law, their document does not mirror Pope Francis’ call for mercy and inclusion nor does it show a respect for LGBT people.
Hopefully, through mediation, the wrongs incurred by “Don’t Mess with Marriage” can be rectified and Catholics, like all Australians, will be able to debate freely the question of civil marriage equality ahead of the nation’s vote.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry