Marriage Rites & Rights

Over the past few weeks I’ve observed countless blogs and social media comments regarding the current topic of the pending change to marriage law in Australia and what that might mean. For the large part there is a lot of unhelpful and misleading information out there and I think some have missed the point entirely.

For the record, I am a Christian minister of nearly 20 years working with Churches of Christ. I currently work in a denominational leadership role where one of my responsibilities among many is to educate ministers who have (or are applying for) a licence to solemnise marriages and what their responsibilities are in relation to holding a licence.

As I have observed conversations and articles being published lately, there appears to be an inconsistency with this pending decision the government have to make about the marriage law. So let’s define what’s happening here.

We the public do not get to have a vote, nor is this a plebiscite. This is an ABS facilitated postal survey (a very expensive one at that), simply sampling public opinion about the definition of marriage. As to the legal status of the ABS having access to the AEC to facilitate said survey, well that’s a matter still to be decided.

Furthermore, terms like ‘marriage equality’, ‘marriage rights’, ‘same sex marriage’ are being used to hijack the conversation. My understanding of the current definition of marriage stated in law according to the Marriage Act 1961 is this: ‘marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.’ I don’t think the above terms are being proposed to be used in the definition of marriage. What we are being asked to consider is this: ‘marriage is between two people to the exclusion of all others, entered into for life.’ What many people are concerned about for better or worse, are the implications resulting from changing that definition, which by the way has only been enshrined in common law for the past 13 years.

I have hesitated for a long time to say anything publicly on the topic of SSM and for certain reasons I am not going to comment on whether I agree with the change of definition or not. It has proven to be an incredibly divisive topic and the pain being caused over this ‘discussion’ (if you can call it that) is simply getting worse, not better. So I’m not going to get into the nature of the impact on families or rights for people to have equal access to lawfully recognised relationships. What I do want to do here is address a concern that has been raised with me frequently this past month regarding the rights of a minister of religion and the rites by which they solemnise marriages. Here are some of my own thoughts and reflections.

The common concerns raised with me are along the lines of whether a minister of religion will be forced by law into performing a legal task that contradicts their faith and tradition. There have been inferences of persecution and civil disobedience which I think can be addressed by taking a look at the provisions for ministers of religion that already exist and I don’t think are going to change.

There is currently a provision in the Marriage Act, Part IV, Division 2, Section 47(a) for ministers of religion who are registered with a recognised denomination for the purposes of solemnising marriages. This provision enshrined in common law, states that a minister is not under any obligation to solemnise any marriage:

47(a) “Nothing in this part imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage.”

This section of the Marriage Act, which is explained in the Guidelines for marriage celebrants’, states clearly that ministers are not obligated to solemnise a marriage for anyone. There is no proposal to change this provision and therefore a minister cannot be forced to solemnise any marriage.

The Marriage Act also defers the form of ceremony and definition of what is stated about the nature of marriage, to the recognised denomination according to their registered rites. Part IV, Division 2, Sections 45 (1) & 46 (1) of the Marriage Act refer ministers of religion to their denomination for this purpose.

Due to the denomination I work for, I refer to the Rites of Churches of Christ which state clearly that “marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” Any marriages solemnised by a minister using the Rites of Churches of Christ is required to conform to this definition. A footnote regarding this definition of the rites affirm that a minister has the discretionary right to perform a marriage or not. Should the definition of marriage be changed in the Marriage Act, the sections of the Act referred to above will remain as exemptions for ministers of religion.

While a change to the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is not an automatic change to the rites of a denomination, the denomination can then choose to change their rites registered, or not, to reflect common law. Each denominational governing body makes their own independent determination as to the definitions and instructions set out in the rites they have registered and a minister of religion using these rights is obligated to solemnise marriages according to the definitions and instructions of those rites.

What I do want to encourage Christian ministers in this regard to do, is to consider not how you are going to campaign against a change to Commonwealth Law, but how you are pastorally and sensitively going to treat a same sex married couple in your community? In what way will they experience the love and grace that can be experienced through the people of God? How will the Gospel be experienced as Good News?

There are many more things I’d like to say which are maybe for another post. But I do want to share with you some very helpful articles and blogs I have come across, some from people I know, which I think provide a balanced and broad centre for conversation.

Some considerations from a Christian pastor

Freedom of religion and marriage equality

Jesus, the family and the present debate

Is SSM the greatest threat to the institution of family in Australia?

The case for and against SSM



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