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This Saturday, gay rights activists will rally outside Sydney Town Hall to demand the recognition of same sex marriages in Australia. The rally will take place, despite the Anglican Church’s initial attempts to block protestors from using the square next to Town Hall, the traditional gathering place for community protests in Sydney.

Fresh on the heels of Princess Catherine’s high Anglican wedding to Prince William, the local church hierarchy continued its relentless campaign to protect the institution of heterosexual marriage. No doubt the church elders thought it was bad enough that the heirs to the British throne had to walk right past our own unwed Prime Minister and her First Mate. What next: Mr and Mr Elton John?  God forbid gays in Australia should follow the path of Mother England and be allowed to legally wed.

Faced with the prospect of a gay rights rally being held in the square between Town Hall and St Andrews, the church’s administrative arm, the Glebe Administration Board voted to deny protestors the right to use the public space to hold the action. The Board is the business front of St Andrew’s Cathedral. Due to a bizarre clause in the site’s original plan of management, the Church actually splits control of the space around Sydney’s Town Hall with the City Council.

The NSW police initially refused to allow the protest to be held. Without “land owner’s consent” for the use of prime public space, the rally would be an illegal activity. The NSW Police dutifully rejected an application for a human rights rally in Sydney. They were only doing their job. In a country without a Charter of Human Rights, there is no enshrined right to free speech. Competing claims must be weighed up: the rights of gay people to peaceably assemble must be balanced against the rights of the church to discriminate against gay people. This was not the first time the Church, who is exempt from paying taxes for the upkeep of public land, blocked a rally taking place at the popular location due to ideological disagreements. Last year they used the same clause to block a pro-choice rally that was to take place outside Town Hall. Although the organisers criticised the decision, they agreed to move their rally to Martin Place.

To its credit, the organising body Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) refused to back down. The protest would go ahead with or without the Church’s consent. Cat Rose, the CAAH co-convenor issued a statement: “It is our democratic right to protest. We have held protests in this space for years without complaint… This area is used by everyone in Sydney as a public space. We will not be stopped because of the church’s preference for us not to protest.”

The church’s decision to ban the protest threatened to bring even more people to the Square. Lord Mayor Clover Moore issued a statement opposing the Church’s actions: “I am disappointed that the Anglican Church has refused permission for the same sex rally in Sydney Square.” Reverend Karl Hand, a pastor at Sydney’s Metropolitan Community Church was also critical of the decision: “It is outrageous that the Anglican Church would try to stop a rally for justice and equality.” Faced with a growing public backlash, the Church was forced into humiliating back down. Mark Payne, the CEO of Sydney Diocesan Secretariat issued a statement: “The Diocese now understands that the rally will be smaller than originally anticipated… and will not therefore use its right of veto to oppose the rally.”

The Anglican Church of Sydney has a long history of opposing the civil rights of gay people. The church’s homophobic Archbishop Peter Jensen has tirelessly campaigned against same sex marriages and aligned the local church with African diocese (who support the death penalty for gays) in order to force the removal of Gene Robinson, an openly gay Bishop in the United States. It is precisely because of the intolerant views of people like Peter Jensen that the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people must be constitutionally protected.  Fortunately the church’s draconian views are not in keeping with the opinions of most Australians where 62 per cent of the population supports marriage equality. By comparison, less than 20 per cent of Australians identify as Anglicans.

co authored by Kieran Adair

The Rally for Marriage Equality will be taking place at 12pm at Town Hall Station, this Saturday the 22nd. Be there or be square! And for more information visit http://www.caah.org.au.