Hillsong pastor Brian Houston has been among prominent conservative Christian voices warning of 'wide-ranging ramifications' in Australia's referendum on legalising gay marriage. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne has said any Church employees who had same-sex marriages would be fired.
Same-sex marriage is currently not legal in Australia, but a divisive, non-binding postal-plebiscite will seek the will of the people on the issue, beginning on September 12 and concluding November 7.
Issuing a statement on the Hillsong website on Friday, megachurch leader Brian Houston said he retained the traditional biblical teaching that 'marriage is between a man and a woman', and warned of 'wide-ranging ramifications' for changing the definition of marriage. 'For Christians', he said, 'the issue is also a matter of faith and biblical teaching, something that should never be mocked or downplayed by those with opposing views'.
However, he urged that all Australians vote whatever their conscience might say on the issue.
Houston wrote: 'Throughout this entire debate, some on both sides of the argument have failed to understand and respect the views of others. Some of those advocating for change to the definition of marriage have confused faith convictions with bigotry however they must understand that Christian – and other religious – beliefs are extremely important to those who hold them and in fact are vital to a tolerant and free society.
'Sadly some also use Christianity to alienate and even condemn those who are gay and dismiss their desire to pursue happiness. As a Christian pastor, I will always teach and preach according to Scripture and my personal convictions, but I cannot make other people's choices for them. God created humanity with a free will, and I care about all people including those who believe differently to me.'
Other high-profile Australian Christians have made public statements ahead of the postal plebiscite, which comes after long-running national debate about marriage and sexuality.
The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, warned that its 180,000 employees, such as teachers and nurses would be fired if they had same-sex marriages.
'I would be very emphatic that our schools, our parishes exist to teach a Catholic view of marriage,' Hart told Fairfax Media. 'Any words or actions which work contrary to that would be viewed very seriously.
'Our teachers, our parish employees are expected totally to uphold the Catholic faith and what we believe about marriage. People have to see in words and in example that our teaching of marriage is underlined.'
Sydney's Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher warned that already across the world, where gay marriage has been legalised, 'those who believe in traditional marriage have been harassed or coerced into complying with the new view of marriage', he told The Australian, according to The Tablet.
'It would be extremely naive to think that won't happen here.'
Suggesting that religious liberty was at stake in the vote, Fisher asked: 'What protections will be offered to people who work for church-run institutions such as schools, hospitals and universities? Will teachers be free to teach church teaching on marriage or will they be forced to teach a more politically correct curriculum?
'Will employers of such church agencies be free to choose staff in sympathy with their Church's teachings? Will Catholic welfare agencies be required to provide marriage preparation or marriage counselling for same-sex couples on pain of being dragged before anti-discrimination tribunals?'
The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier said last year that the church must not be 'harsh or vilifying' in the debate on sexuality, but said it could still hold onto its traditional teaching.
He said in a letter to Anglican bishops: 'We can still stand for and offer holy matrimony between a man and a woman as a sacred ordinance given by God, while accepting that the state has endorsed a wider view of marriage... The doctrine of the Book of Common Prayer remains unchanged, that marriage is between a man and a woman, under God, forsaking all others until death parts them. I do not believe that the Anglican Church in Australia is likely to revise its doctrine of marriage.'