The Human Rights Commission has rubbished the Australian Christian Lobby's call for anti-discrimination laws to be suspended during the same-sex marriage plebiscite, describing it as "outrageous" and based on a misunderstanding of the law.
In a separate move, about 40 religious leaders have written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging him to ditch the plebiscite plan altogether, arguing it will damage the standing of religious communities and harm the mental health of gay people.
Gillian Triggs slams calls to change anti-discrimination laws
Anti-discrimination laws won't prevent free speech so don't need to be changed during the same sex marriage debate, says the head of the Human Rights Commission.
Responding to the ACL's push to have anti-discrimination laws "set aside" during the plebiscite campaign to ensure free speech, Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs said it was a "disgraceful way of dealing with the issue".
"[They] are saying that we have to stand down or suspend the laws so that you can do what would otherwise be a vilification," Professor Triggs told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
"It's an outrageous proposition and it's highly misguided."
Professor Triggs said the ACL's call for the federal government to "override" anti-discrimination laws, particularly state-based laws, was "based on a failure to understand the way the law works".
She said the right to freedom of religious views was one of the best-protected rights in Australia because it was entrenched in the Constitution, adding there was no federal law against vilification on the basis of sexuality and only Queensland, NSW and the ACT made it unlawful to incite hatred on the basis of sexual orientation.
While Tasmania takes a broader approach, Professor Triggs said there was no rush of findings against free speech in the state.
"It is a very, very high threshold," she said, countering the ACL argument that current laws would make the "no" camp vulnerable to "the constant threat of quasi and full-blown legal action" during the plebiscite.
Victorian Minister for Equality Martin Foley wrote to Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday, outlining his concerns that "weakening anti-discrimination laws will further hurt LGBTI Australians". Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus also slammed the ACL's proposal, saying: "If you need to offend in order to convince people, you've already lost".
As debate about the process of a plebiscite continued, representatives of Anglican, Uniting and Baptist churches wrote to Mr Turnbull, calling for Parliament to resolve the issue instead.
The letter warns a plebiscite risks providing a platform for "disparaging LGBTI Australians and their families, leading to increased incidents of anxiety, depression and suicide," and could "discredit the voice of faith communities more generally on public matters".
Pastor of Sydney's Wayside Chapel Graham Long said he was a signatory because the plebiscite would see opposing sides to "dig into their trenches" and "throw bombs".
"I'm really struggling to see where the wisdom is," Reverend Long said. "The other idea is we could use our Parliament as a Parliament."
The letter also expresses concern that the "negative case" in a plebiscite would be put by religious groups and leaders "who claim to speak on behalf of people of faith generally, or religious institutions as a whole".
Letter organiser, Angus McLeayof Merri Creek Anglican in inner-city Melbourne, said it was a concern that the ACL could be seen to represent all Christians.
"The ACL represent certain, quite conservative viewpoints," Reverend McLeay said.
"The public, they just hear 'Christian' and they don't necessarily make fine distinctions."
On Wednesday, the ACL stood by its call for anti-discrimination laws to be set aside.
"None of our arguments vilify or hate and neither should they. The arguments are not the problem. The laws are the problem. In particular, the abuse of the laws and legal processes by activists," managing director Lyle Shelton said.
"State-based human rights commissions are often weaponised by activists against those with different views."
Senator Brandis was overseas on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Last week in Senate estimates, he said there had been a "great deal of stakeholder consultation" on the plebiscite process and that he would take a submission to cabinet "in coming months".
There is no date set yet for the plebiscite, which is due after the federal election if the Coalition wins.