It was a powerful symbol of unity and acceptance at the heart of government.
When religious leaders converged on Parliament House in Canberra last week to back same-sex marriage it sent a strong message that equality is everyone’s business.
The National Faith and Civil Marriage Equality Forum brought together leaders from Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, who publicly called on their brethren, and the government to act.
In a joint statement, they said they supported marriage equality “not despite but because of our faith and values”, urging people of faith to stand up for it as a matter of social justice.
It is the latest in a series of public declarations from religious groups who are taking steps to embrace the LGBTI community.
Last week, the Salvation Army announced its support for The Safe Schools Coalition, with its Victorian State Council stating none of the negative claims made about the anti-bullying program were accurate. The Christian charity also welcomed the Victorian Government’s commitment to roll it out in every secondary school.
It was a significant change of direction for an organisation with a chequered history of anti-gay comments, including a 2012 interview in which a Salvation Army major said that gay people being put to death was part of the organisation’s belief system.
But while there is still much work to be done in uniting LGBTI and faith communities, this was a sign of the turning the tide.
Earlier this year, 40 religious leaders signed a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging him to drop a plebiscite on marriage equality and allow a free vote in Parliament.
Yet, despite this shift towards acceptance, the shrillest minority of religious outliers continue to dominate media and government attention in their virulent opposition to LGBTI rights.
The Australian Christian Lobby has led the fear-based agenda against Safe Schools and has been the most vocal opponent of marriage equality.
Its leaders have compared the advance of gay rights to the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany, described the children of same-sex couples as another “stolen generation”, and stated that being gay is more of a health risk than smoking.
Christian groups are at pains to point out the ACL is not the religion’s peak body and does not represent the majority of Christians, much less faith-based communities more broadly.
So why are we still listening?
Giving an unrepresentative fringe group a national platform to debase the LGBTI community not only unfairly skews the national conversation on equality but it is potentially harmful.
Same-sex attracted young people from faith-based backgrounds are much more likely to self-harm, attempt suicide or experience homelessness as a result of being ostracised from their families and communities.
Faith leaders who run support groups for gay Christians are inundated with calls for help from people who have been driven to the brink of despair trying to reconcile their religion with their sexuality.
Beyondblue chief executive Georgie Harman has urged religious groups to do more to reduce the high rates of mental health problems among their LGBTI parishioners, and to stamp out “conversion” programs that attempt to “pray away the gay.”
But at a time when many churches are reaching out with the hand of friendship to the queer community, the Australian Christian Lobby continues to move in the opposite direction, vilifying a group of Australians based solely on who they are, with persistent attacks that skirt the borders of hate speech.
In April, Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison spoke at the organisation’s annual conference, sharing the stage with an American radio host who drew parallels between the push for LGBTI equality and the Church’s failure to stand up to Nazism. John Howard and Bill Shorten have also spoken at the event in the past. Julia Gillard pulled out after the group’s then leader Jim Wallace said homosexuality was a health risk.
The media coverage the organisation receives is also disproportionate to its representation, with managing director Lyle Shelton regularly rolled out on the ABC’s Q&A or Channel Ten’s The Project as the voice of religious Australians.
The Australian Christian Lobby has a right to be heard, but politicians and journalists should not be beholden to a group simply because it shouts the loudest, drowning out the voices of reasonable, accepting people of faith.
For many religious leaders, their faith is based on the tenets of compassion, charity and kindness – principles they can cannot reconcile with the marginalisation of LGBTI people.
As Baptist Reverend Carolyn Francis said after last week’s Canberra forum: “I won’t let my faith be defined by those obsessed with exclusion.”
These are the voices of the religious majority that must be heard, not the fringe dwelling fear-mongers who use their faith as an excuse for discrimination.