Recently, Australians participated in a “postal survey” to share our opinion on whether marriage laws should be amended to include same-sex marriage.

On 15 November 2017 it was declared a “yes”, the majority of the Australian population was in favour of legalising same-sex marriage and then on 8 December 2017 same-sex marriage was officially declared legal in Australia.

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 is the result of the continued debate and outcome of the postal survey on same-sex marriage. It makes a number of legislative changes to the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth), ultimately legalising same-sex marriage and taking that all important step in the direction of a more equal, tolerant, and inclusive society. The key changes to the Marriage Act 1961 include:

  1. The definition of Marriage

‘Marriage’ was previously defined as ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. Key to this definition was the phrase “the union of a man and woman”, which of course prevented same-sex couples from getting married.

Now, marriage means ‘the union of two people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’.

This definition is entirely gender neutral and its purpose is to encompass all relationships.

  1. Recognition of foreign same-sex marriages

Prior to the amendments, same-sex marriages solemnised in a foreign country were not recognised in Australia. The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 has repealed sections 88B(4) and 88EA, ultimately allowing for same-sex marriages conducted overseas to be recognised in Australia as valid marriages.

  1. Freedom of Religion

Religious attitudes, values and beliefs feature heavily throughout the course of the debate on same-sex marriage. Key to the amendments is the notion of freedom of religion, which may of course be an important aspect to a couple’s marriage ceremony.

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 reinforces the ability for ministers of religion and religious celebrants to refuse to solemnise a marriage based on religious beliefs (see sections 47 and 47A of the Marriage Act 1961). Despite this, compliance and regard must still be given to the relevant anti-discrimination laws, such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

The legalisation and recognition of same-sex marriage is a historic step forward for Australia, especially for Australian society and the development of its law. It is undoubtedly a step towards creating an all-inclusive, equal and tolerant society.