Australia’s top court yesterday struck down gay marriage in the nation’s capital, ruling that parliament must decide on same-sex unions — to the anguish of dozens who have wed under a landmark law.
In a unanimous judgment scotching the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) new same-sex marriage law, the High Court ruled that only parliament — not state and territory authorities — had the power to decide who could wed.
The ruling dashed the hopes of same-sex couples and campaigners who had banked on the ACT legislation paving the way to a national law permitting gay marriage, a decade after the federal government defined wedlock as strictly between a man and a woman.
Polling commissioned by marriage equality campaigners puts support for same-sex marriage in Australia at 64 percent, but the nation continues to lag behind a growing number of countries on the reform, including neighboring New Zealand, Britain and 16 US states.
“The Marriage Act does not now provide for the formation or recognition of marriage between same-sex couples,” the court said.
“That Act is a comprehensive and exhaustive statement of the law of marriage,” it added.
“Under the constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same-sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the federal parliament,” it said.”
There were tearful scenes outside the Canberra courthouse as some of the 27 couples who wed under the month-old law learned that their vows were to be annulled.
“In less than a week we’ve been married and we’ve been unmarried, at least on a legal level,” a “devastated” Ivan Hinton told reporters, fighting back tears.
Hinton married his partner of 11 years Chris Teoh at Old Parliament House on Saturday, one of the first weddings to be conducted under the ACT law.
“We’re still married. I’ve made commitments to Chris to spend the rest of my life with him, through sickness and through health, in the good times and in the bad,” Hinton said.
“Today’s not particularly good,” he said.
Gay marriage was explicitly outlawed under a 2004 revision of the national Marriage Act by the conservative prime minister at the time, John Howard. Since then, the issue has gained increasing national traction.
Same-sex couples can have civil unions or register their relationships in most states across Australia, but the government does not consider them married under national law.
For legal purposes they are considered de facto couples and have exactly the same rights as married couples. However, campaigners insist that the right to marry is a more fundamental human right.
Despite the court ruling, veteran gay rights campaigner Rodney Croome said social progress could not be undone.
“Although there’s been a defeat for marriage equality in the High Court today this week, we’ve seen a much greater victory,” Croome said.
“For the first time ever same-sex couples have married on Australian soil. That has been a huge step forward and one from which there is no return,” he said.