News

Church’s marriage office head fears for freedom of speech

Monday 13 November 2017

David King, The Australian

Matthew MacDonald and his wife Julie are committed Christians who take responsibility for teaching their children about marriage, which they believe should be between a man and woman.

They send their children to a Catholic school because they feel safe that the values they adhere to will also be taught there.

‘We’re sending them to a school that will hold up what we believe to be true, whether that’s politically popular or not,’ Mr MacDonald said.
 
 
Matthew and Julie MacDonald with their children,
Joseph, Francis, Raphael, Ana-Lucia & Nathaniel
at St Patrick’s Catholic church in Murrumbeena.
Picture: Stuart McEvoy
 
But the couple are concerned that a future same-sex marriage bill, without clear religious protections, will leave teachers vulnerable to prosecution under anti-discrimination laws.

West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith has proposed a bill that includes religious protections for clergy and some celebrants involved in solemnising marriages. But Mr MacDonald is worried this is too narrowly focused on those performing the ceremony.

‘Our concern is that under the bill that Dean Smith’s put forward, those kinds of protections aren’t provided to teachers or principals who employ teachers at schools,’ he said, ‘and that they won’t be given the same freedom that they have at the moment to teach what we as parents would want them to teach our children.’

Mr MacDonald also has another reason to be concerned about religious freedoms: his work. As director of the Life, Marriage and Family Office in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, he spends much of his day talking about the Catholic view on marriage. ‘Part of my work involves talking to couples who are preparing to be married,’ he said. ‘One of the things that we’re conscious of is that, at the moment, I’m quite free to say what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage.

‘Dean Smith’s bill only protects religious ministers in the context of a marriage ceremony. It doesn’t protect me as a lay person working in a church agency talking about marriage. It gives me absolutely no protection whatsoever.’

A group of Coalition MPs is working on a bill to rival Senator Smith’s that would contain greater religious protections. Those protections would be welcomed by the MacDonalds, who are worried that basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are being curtailed in Australia.

‘We’re all allowed to have our own opinion, that’s what I’ve always believed in Australia,’ Mrs MacDonald said. ‘But if it’s legislated, then it’s not allowed, what am I going to do? Only say things in the pod of my house?’

Mr MacDonald says the impact on free speech can already be felt by the same-sex marriage debate.

‘A bill hasn’t even passed the parliament, but even in a social situation with family and friends, we’re reluctant to say what we really believe, because of the way people will criticise us. So in one sense our freedom has already been compromised a bit.’

He believes ensuring these freedoms shouldn’t be dealt with by way of exemptions in a bill, but should be enshrined in some way.

‘Freedom of religion is as much a right as any other,’ he said.

Read this story in The Australian (subscription may be required)

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