Two bride figurines adorn the top of a wedding cake during an illegal same-sex wedding ceremony in central Melbourne August 1, 2009.
Two bride figurines adorn the top of a wedding cake during an illegal same-sex wedding ceremony in central Melbourne August 1, 2009. Reuters/Mick Tsikas

Australia's Catholic church has warned that it will fire any of its 180,000 employees who marry their same-sex partners once gay marriage is legalised. The move is led by the country’s most senior Catholics.

Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart said the church's teachers, nurses and other employees were supposed to totally uphold its teachings, specifically what the church believes about marriage. He maintained that defiance will be treated "very seriously.”

"I would be very emphatic that our schools, our parishes exist to teach a Catholic view of marriage," he told Fairfax Media. He said that any opposing actions or words would be viewed critically.

Hart, who chairs the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, argued that people must see in words and in example that the Catholic church’s teaching of marriage is underlined. He said that individual hiring and firing decisions "are best dealt with on the local scene.”

Bishops Commission for Catholic Education chair Archbishop Timothy Costelloe backed up Hart. He has specifically warned teachers against "undermining" the values of Catholic schools if same-sex marriage became law.

Costelloe pointed out that the reason parents send their kids to Catholic schools is to be educated within a Catholic framework. Marriage, he said, was an imperative part.

"In accepting a role in a Catholic school, staff will recognise their responsibility to conduct themselves in such a way as not to undermine the fundamental ethos of the school," he told Fairfax Media. He believes the Catholic church must ensure its values are upheld by those working for the organisation like all other employers.

Australia’s Anglican Church is yet to comment directly on employees, but recognised the importance of protecting religious freedom. The country’s anti-discrimination laws provide churches with comprehensive exemptions, which allow them to hire and fire on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

Chief executive of Catholic Social Services Australia Father Frank Brennan defended the church’s ability to refuse employment to a same-sex attracted person as well as for aged care facilities to refuse married gay couples. He wrote in The Guardian that he could vote "yes" in the upcoming postal survey, but he wanted the church to maintain its right to discriminate.

Since 1984, religious organisations have had exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act. Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow has stated that any attempt to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia would need to uphold those exemptions, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

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