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Penny Wong has hit out at the influence of religious groups in Australia’s same-sex marriage debate, saying a conflation of religious and secular notions of marriage has delayed progress on the issue.

Penny Wong has hit out at the influence of religious groups in Australia's same-sex marriage debate, saying a conflation of religious and secular notions of marriage has delayed progress on the issue.

Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Wong, who is the Labor opposition leader in the Senate, made the unusually pointed comments at the Frank Walker Memorial Lecture in Sydney on Wednesday night.

In the opening lines of her speech, she argued that marriage equality “languishes in the too hard basket because of the intransigence of those who see it as their right to impose their personal views on the community as a whole”.

Wong's speech made the argument that a major problem in Australia's contentious same-sex marriage debate is “the application of religious belief to the framing of law in a secular society”.

“The law slowly evolved to regard marriage as a contract rather than a sacrament and recognised that the marriage contract had particular reference to children and property,” she said.

“But it remains the case that religious attitudes to marriage continue to impact on much of the political debate that has delayed the recognition of the marriage equality rights of the gay and lesbian community.”

Wong described Australia's secular society as a “great protection” against extremism, and stressed the importance of separating church and state.

“Religion-based moral codes continue to limit the freedoms and the rights of those who, in the view of religious groups, do not ‘conform’ to their views. In advocating, and indeed proselytizing, their own views, they too often restrict and constrain the rights of others.

“Why, one might ask, should gay people be expected to show ‘gratitude’ that their sexual relationships have been decriminalised?

“And why, one might also ask, should the gay and lesbian community be merely ‘tolerated’ when the heterosexual community takes for granted ‘acceptance’ and recognition of their sexual preference as ‘the norm’?”

She also said religious liberty does not extend to the law enforcing a particular religion's view on marriage.

“Religious freedom means being free to worship and to follow your faith without suffering persecution or discrimination for your beliefs,” she said. “It does not mean imposing your beliefs on everyone else.

“And it most emphatically does not mean deploying the power of the state to enforce one set of religious beliefs.

Wong said she is a person of faith and does not believe a secular society is anti-religion, but rather “characterised by the personal freedoms of its members to hold God in whatever regard they wish”.

Wong also rejected the argument that marriage is chiefly about procreation and should therefore be restricted to heterosexual couples.

“I’m pretty confident that the description of marriages as loveless relationships with the pure aim of procreating would not resonate with the vast majority of Australians,” she said.

“When the member for Moore [Ian Goodenough], a bachelor, claimed that marriage was only for procreation, my friend the member for Griffith [Terri Butler] hilariously suggested that he ‘not roll that one out on a first date’. It would be advice well taken, I think.”

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