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“When it comes to marriage equality, the problem is not so much that religious values are in play. The problem is that we’re not hearing the full gamut of religious voices.”
Stephen A. Russell

1 Sep 2017 - 10:26 AM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2017 - 10:26 AM

It is a measure of the rapidly evolving marriage equality debate in this country that, after having interviewed human rights advocate and law reform proponent Angus McLeay on the phone, I have to go back to him a week or so later to canvas his opinions on the government’s postal survey solution.

His email response is unambiguous. “The proposed postal survey on whether LGBTI people should have their relationships recognised as civil marriage is a deeply disappointing process. It lacks credibility and is an unprincipled means by which to consider the rights of a minority group. If it must happen, I support a change to the Marriage Act because of my faith’s core values.”

An ordained Anglican minister and married, heterosexual man, McLeay will join pro-Palestine Australian-Israeli academic Na’ama Carlin and Tim Kroenert, editor of theology-focused journal Eureka Street, on a Melbourne Writers’ Festival panel dubbed Dissent Within. Looking at the flashpoint between personal and religious belief, it’s a showcase of voices pushing for internal change.

“I think dissent is an interesting term because it implies a break from the majority or the ranks or the orthodoxy, but not a departure, or rejection, or rebellion,” McLeay says during our initial chat. “I certainly don’t see myself as someone who is out there to attack, undermine or disenfranchise my fellow Christians, or people who have different theological perspectives. I try to find the way forward for people who get into points of fundamental disagreement.”

McLeay argues we need a much more reasoned debate in this country. “I’d say let’s start from the middle ground. It’s too easy if you have various panels, whether they are on TV or radio, to stack them with the usual suspects from either side. What you get is a lot of rhetoric and heat and not much light.”

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Having previously argued for a civil society summit that would facilitate debate in a structured and respectful format, rather than the Coalition’s pre-election plebiscite policy, McLeay saw that option as a possible circuit breaker. “I think middle ground people who can build understanding and have the patience and capacity to do that is what we need to get more of into the public conversations we’re having, rather than strident polemical approaches.”

That includes not wholesale writing-off religious perspectives. McLeay actively pushes to include conservative religious but not closed-minded voices on the marriage equality panels he’s helped orchestrate.

“A good friend who in many ways is quite an eccentric and certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a senior church person… was the only person on a recent panel representing conservative religious views, so he inevitably felt a sense of pressure from being in that position,” McLeay says. “I think it feels for some of them a mentality that they are perhaps under attack and they feel the ostracism, the weight of it on them. It doesn’t justify the rights and wrongs of their views, it’s just something we all need to be conscious of.”

Religious exemptions have become fraught ground in the marriage equality debate. It’s an area in which McLeay, who is in the process of completing a master degree in law, has done a lot of research. “It’s important to find a best way we can to allow religious communities to flourish but not in that process give them license to mistreat people within their own midst who don’t fit the norm,” he says. 

That includes LGBTIQ people who identify as religious and also the many straight allies within churches, as McLeay witnessed first hand at the wedding of a 25-year-old female friend who had a pro-marriage equality statement read out at her reception. The predominantly young crowd, largely hailing from a conservative church background, greeted it with thunderous applause. 

“When it comes to marriage equality, the problem is not so much that religious values are in play,” McLeay insists. “The problem is that we’re not hearing the full gamut of religious voices.”

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McLeay also points to the lack of diversity in our parliament. “This is a case where we’ve got older white males predominant in the upper echelons of our federal parliamentary system, and no surprise a significant number of those are against marriage equality. How different would this conversation be if our parliamentary ranks were more representative of the Australian community, gender, age, ethnicity and religious-wise?”

Exemptions have their place in a truly multicultural Australia, McLeay argues. “If we believe in the idea of diversity as something that we can embrace as a society, we have to find ways for generally applicable laws and policies to incorporate everyone.”

That includes allowances for the likes of Victoria’s male-only gay bar The Laird and for Muslim woman to use swimming pools with no men present. “There are a variety of religious exemptions that are important for sustaining the diversity and multiculturalism that we value, but the question is still there,” McLeay cautions. “Exemptions can also allow harm to take place. I suppose for me, in a really basic sense, it’s about what does it look like to treat another person with respect, care and dignity? To take their, not just your own, conscience or values into consideration.” 

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival runs from August 25 - September 3. Dissent Within is on September 3, book tickets here

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