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Opinion editorial, Peter Sandeman, AnglicareSA CEO, August 2017

Following the murder of a gay man Dr George Duncan, South Australia was the first State to legalise male homosexuality.

While many agreed with decriminalisation, this was tolerance rather than acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships. Yet this landmark legislation led the way for recognition of the rights of members of LGBTI communities and their demand for full citizenship.

In recognising that equal treatment before the law for all citizens requires the state to make marriage available to all consenting adults, marriage equality will mark the move by society from tolerance to acceptance of same sex relationships. Yet the right to marry is seen by some as a fundamental conflict between the rights to religious freedom and equality, but this conflict can readily be resolved.

In Australia we combine the sacrament of marriage with legal recognition through the merged roles of priest and marriage celebrant. Ministers of religion perform a rite of their church but also act for the state in officiating marriage.

If we adopt the European approach, disentangling church and state entirely, the state would determine the relationships it recognises in conducting civil marriage ceremonies. Churches would be free to choose which relationships to consecrate.

The language of “marriage” rather than “civil unions” evokes an acceptance of gender identities not approved in traditional religious teachings, and this points to the deeper issue.

We are a multicultural and multi-faith society. The right to religious belief and expression is a fundamental freedom. This freedom however, implies that we must respect the beliefs and rights of other faiths and those who possess none. We must recognise that the secular state is not an instrument to enforce religious belief.

In attempting to manage the tension between rights sincerely advanced from different parts of our diverse community, we run the risk of unleashing ugly conflicts which will be difficult to contain.

The challenge in the current debate is to avoid both the potential for deep hurt for those whose identity and relationships will be portrayed as lesser, and the attempts to exclude religious belief and expression from the public space.

Jesus commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves: enabling our gay and lesbian friends to celebrate their adult relationships will not diminish state-sanctioned marriage, but will lead to greater justice, love and respect.

Marriage is not a prerequisite for procreation, families now come in all shapes. The high rates of domestic violence and the incidence of out of home care, mean that our first priority must be to ensure that all children are loved and are safe no matter who their parents are.