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Same-sex marriage debate: Religious freedom is, and should be, limited

The Jesus People consider their tiny sect to be a religion. With beliefs based on hippiedom and Christian fundamentalism, they follow an ascetic way of life. Members also, allegedly, violently abuse women and practise polygamy, as a way of getting closer to God.

Another sect, or "new religious movement," the Children of God, sexually abused young children in the name of Jesus Christ. This was not ancillary to their religion; it was part of their observance.

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Same-sex marriage: The result is in

This is the moment it was announced Australians have voted in favour of marriage equality.

Then there is the sub-section of Muslim believers who mutilate girls' genitalia.

Illegal behaviour of this kind is subject to criminal sanction by worldly authorities. We're happy to say these practices are wrong, abhorrent, bizarre, even though they are expressions of sincere religious belief.

Religious freedom has its limits. And nobody questions it.

So why is the right-wing of the Liberal Party now arguing that religious belief should provide a talisman against some of the laws the rest of us need to follow?

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That is what Victorian senator James Paterson's Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017 tried to do before he announced on Tuesday that he would not be introducing it.

The Paterson bill wanted to exempt the wedding industry – planners, bakers, accommodation providers, florists – from the federal Sex Discrimination Act and state anti-discrimination laws. These are laws the rest of us accept in the name of a civilised society, in not discriminating against people for who they are.

Why should the "conscience" of a homophobic florist be able to override those laws? Why should he or she be able to humiliate a same-sex couple by denying a service in the lead-up to that couple's happy day?

Let's be clear here. This is not a question about protecting mainstream religious observance from same-sex marriage. That is already protected in the mainstream bill, put forward by Dean Smith and the Liberal moderates. No religious minister under that bill need marry a gay couple against his or her conscience.

Paterson's bill radically extended this existing principle to any "conscientious objectors" who call themselves a "proponent of traditional marriage". This bill said they should be able to voice their objection by refusing a commercial service.

The law on that is also very clear.

In 2008, a group talking about suicide prevention with at-risk LGBTI teens from country Victoria booked a getaway at the Phillip Island Adventure Resort. The group, Way Out, did not realise the resort was owned and run by a conservative religious group, the Christian Brethren.

When the Brethren found out who they were hosting, they cancelled the booking, saying the group's activities were "contrary to God's teaching as set out in the Bible", and contravened the resort's "safety" policy.

"Our definition of safety, because of our Christian faith, does not support or include the promotion of homosexuality," the camp said at the time.

It was, no doubt, a sincere religious belief.

Even so, the camp lost the case all the way through the courts until the High Court refused special leave to appeal. The camp, the courts said, was a commercial enterprise, and did not have a "religious purpose". It was therefore not protected by the general exemption that religious organisations have under anti-discrimination laws.

It turns out this is another limit on freedom of religion: businesses run (tax free) by religious groups cannot discriminate against potential customers on the grounds of sexuality.

People generally support religious freedom and the Constitution requires it. But none of the commercial enterprises run by "conscientious objectors" that Paterson's bill sought to exempt from discrimination law has a religious purpose.

So let's not be hoodwinked into changing the law to pander to bogus religious freedom lobbyists.

Like the Jesus People, the Children of God, or genital mutilators, they should all be required to obey the same laws as the rest of us.