Sixty-two percent of Australians support equal marriage rights. This support has risen from the 33% who backed same-sex marriage in 2004 — the year gay marriage was banned.
This rise in support has been a result of the grassroots campaign waged by activists with rallies, politician visits, media stunts, Mardi Gras floats, petitions and others mobilisations.
In Sydney, Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) has organised rallies since June 2004.
A rally has been organised almost every three months over the past two years. It has typically started at Sydney Square (next to Sydney Town Hall) and marched around the block, or to Taylor Square in Darlinghurst.
Not once in the past seven years was there serious opposition from the police.
So CAAH members were surprised on May 11, two weeks before its next rally, to receive an email from NSW police that said the “proposed venue [is] unable to hold this event due to conflicting cathedral activities and ongoing maintenance”.
Sydney Square is part-owned by the City of Sydney and the Anglican Church’s St Andrews Cathedral.
After the initial email, the police contacted CAAH to say maintenance works at the cathedral was the reason the rally could not go ahead.
CAAH activists visited the site and returned to inform the police that there was no maintenance. Police then said a wedding and an another unspecified event were reasons CAAH had to move its rally.
When CAAH refused to move from the Sydney Square, the police proposed a list of conditions. These included that the rally was to have no more than 1000 people, that the police determine the sound system and that CAAH remove any “offensive” placards.
CAAH co-convener Cat Rose said: “The police were very heavy handed. The week before the rally they rang me six times, talked to me for a total of one-and-a-half hours, patronised me and tried to make me sign these anti-democratic conditions.”
Sydney-based lawyer Dale Mills said: “NSW police do not issue ‘permits’ for protests and have no powers to demand ‘conditions’.
“Yet they have now tried to place these conditions on a recent International Women’s Day rally, a WikiLeaks rally and now a marriage rally.
“If the police truly disagree with a protest going ahead, they can seek a prohibition order from the Supreme Court. But they don’t because they usually lose.”
In contrast to the Anglican Church and the police, Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore offered her support to CAAH. She said on May 13: “I am disappointed that the Anglican Church has refused permission for the same-sex rally in Sydney Square. I have been happy to support and speak at these well-managed and peaceful rallies over the past few years.”
CAAH did not sign the conditions and the rally proceeded with police unleashing a small verbal at towards organisers before the rally about the position of a stall.
They also increased their presence with four police cars and four horses.
St Andrew’s Cathedral “Gathering Times” noticeboard is placed prominently on the side of the building. It showed that on May 21 that there was no wedding, nor any other event in the cathedral. In fact, there was nothing on at all.
Greens City of Sydney councillor Irene Doutney liaised with the Anglican Church during the week. She said: “I’m hoping the Church will be more cooperative in the future — but of course there are no guarantees.
“We must be allowed to use this main public open space for rallies that express opinions in conflict with mainstream ideas and support human rights issues. The public has a right to make its voice heard whether the powers that be like it or not.”
Stephen Blanks, spokesperson for the NSW Civil Liberties Council, said: “I suspect the Anglican Church was being manipulated by the police, and the police misrepresented their position to CAAH.
“So much is apparent from the fact that there was no scheduled ceremony on the Saturday afternoon in the Church.
“Sydney Square is public and community space, and while the Church’s legitimate interests should be taken into account in the use of that space, it would not be appropriate for the Church to exercise control over who uses the space or how.”
“Protest organisers should not be intimidated,” Rose concluded. “They should hold firm, not sign these conditions, and exercise their democratic right to change the world.”
[Rachel Evans is the secretary of Community Action Against Homophobia.]