Consensus on religious freedom laws is proving elusive

The Morrison government’s controversial proposed religious freedom laws appear on the surface to be straightforward. The bill aims to protect a person from charges of discrimination when making a statement of belief.

 A statement of belief is defined as being of a religious  nature,  expressed in good faith and of a view that “may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings” of the religion. (It can also be a statement of atheism.)

 So far, however, a compromise has been unachievable. The response to the draft bill has been critical from all sides.

Churches want the protections to go much further, while LGBTQI groups believe the new laws will lead to more discrimination.

The government maintains it is still consulting widely on the issues raised and debate on the final make-up of the bill is welcome.

 Last month, the Newcastle Institute, a not-for-profit organisation established to increase the involvement of the Newcastle community in the discussion and development of public policy, hosted Father Rod Bower, from the Anglican Parish of Gosford. Fr Bower, an Anglican priest and Archdeacon for Justice Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle, discussed whether more protection for religious freedom is needed.

 He is particularly well known for the thought-provoking signs he erects outside his church at Gosford, often on social issues such as asylum seekers or marriage equality.

 An edited version of his speech discussing the issues around the draft religious freedom bill and whether there is a case for strengthening existing laws has been published below with permission.


So why exactly are we discussing a religious freedom bill? Who is doing it?

It is happening partially because Christianity is no longer in the driver’s seat, and that’s an uncomfortable position for those who are used to being in control. The marriage equality legislation, and recent women’s health reforms have caused so-called religious conservatives to feel marginalised.

Of course, when you are used to privilege, equality feels like persecution.

Unsurprisingly, the federal government’s proposed religious freedoms bill is now receiving criticism even from those for whom it was designed to placate. The progressive side of the political spectrum has always rejected the concept, rather opting for a bill of rights to protect everyone rather than just an advantaged few.

But now the bill is being condemned by the very religious conservatives it was designed to benefit.

Predictably, the ultra-conservative Anglican Diocese of Sydney has rejected the bill because it does not go far enough in supporting its entitlement.  The rapid breakdown in the community acceptance of this legislation is the unavoidable consequence of a political party playing to a small section of its base and seeking to wedge the opposition.

This is a relatively recent issue to be played with by populism. It is an issue made manifest partly by religious pluralism, partly by secularism and partly by the rise in religious extremism.

If only the Church of England was still in charge. The good old Church of England tended to keep the extremists at bay and embrace the moderates of every kind, even the moderate secularist could feel at home in her embrace.

Remember, the Pilgrim Fathers did not set off for the New World fleeing religious persecution as is often said. They left England because the established church was too accommodating, and they wanted to impose their own form of puritan tyranny.

Perhaps, at least in part because of this, religious persecution was never really a big thing in Australia whereas religious privilege certainly has been.

Sure, there was always a little argy-bargy between Catholics and Protestants. BHP executive lunches were always held on Fridays and beef was always served.

The Masons had the fire brigade, the Legion of Mary had police, or something like that … There were never that many Muslims, and the shadow of the Holocaust kept anti-Semitism at bay. It all seemed to work out OK.

What I am trying to illustrate here, while not indulging in some fantastical delusions regarding a belief in the “good old days”, is to suggest that the prevailing religious moderates “contained” the extremists, and society “contained” them all. It was all about containment.

Now it’s all changed. The generation who held the memory of the Nazis is almost all but gone and anti-Semitism is on the rise. Neo-Nazi groups can gather with impunity. Mosques are vandalised. A quiet country town like Grafton can produce a mass murderer, driven by the kind of unimaginable hate that inevitably leads to catastrophic harm.

Something has definitely changed.  A new kind of containment is needed. But is this religious freedom bill the answer?

Importantly, the Ruddock report did find there was still no widespread systemic religious persecution in Australia. In my view, schools and other religious organisations who sought exemptions from anti-discrimination laws should have to explain why and make that explanation public on their websites and in prospectuses.

The Law Reform Commission is scheduled to bring down its findings on the Ruddock review in December 2020. It would seem wise to wait for those recommendations to illuminate our path.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which we are a signatory, holds that freedom to adopt a religion or not, and, to hold a religious belief or not, is absolute.

But the ICCPR also states the manifestation of these freedoms may be legitimately constrained by law: “Anti-discrimination laws make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age. These are aspects of human existence over which we have no choice. That is one of the foundational aspects of anti-discrimination law. To place religion, about which we do make choices, in the same category and weight under law, is a serious mistake.” 

For human rights and social justice to exist, everyone must live in the same civic universe. This bill provides for the religiously inclined to inhabit a more privileged civic universe than others. History has shown where that will lead.

The vilification of others will be licensed under the veil of what will be considered as what “may reasonably be regarded” as religious belief, and the impacts will range wide across society, including medical care, education and employment issues, on which I will briefly expand.

Let me begin by saying the medical aspect of this legislation is truly frightening. The bill seems to preference the religious sensibilities of the medical provider over the needs of the patient. This raises special concern for women in minority ethnic groups who already experience, in some cases, a limited horizon of information that can seriously limit their ability to make informed choices regarding their healthcare. 

Religious schools, if they wish to continue to be publicly funded, must teach from a curriculum that meets public expectations. Therefore, in a civics class in a Catholic school, it could be reasonably expected that students be made aware of the fact that it is lawful for two people of the same sex to enter into a legal civil marriage.

Where in the divinity class, it would not be unreasonable for the students to be taught that Catholic marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. The civics class being publicly funded, and the divinity class being funded by the church. The same logic would apply to any religious school.

But of course, that is not the real issue.

This becomes far more complex and murkier when it comes to employment of teachers in religious schools, especially when public funds are being expended.

Should a Christian school have the right to insist on a Christian maths teacher, when there is no such thing as Christian maths to teach?

Every organisation should have the right to expect that while engaged in work an employee upholds the culture and ethical framework of their employer. But there is a very valid question as to how far that expectation should be able to go. The proposed legislation does not bring clarity in this regard, potentially overriding workplace law to the advantage of the religious.

The religious freedom bill seems to place the burden of the freedom of the religiously inclined on everyone else but the religious person themselves. It also seems to enshrine the very worst aspects of religion, such as bigotry and prejudice, rather than encouraging religion’s best expressions such as compassion and charity.

It would be far better if we could develop a culture where while the right to hold a belief or opinion is respected, the responsibility for that belief or opinion is that of the holder. So, if you don’t agree with your employer’s ideological framework then you shouldn’t work for them.

If you are a gay secularist teacher, then perhaps a public school would be a better fit than a Christian school. If you are a fundamentalist Christian, then why would you have any desire to work for an organisation that has a clearly articulated policy for the inclusion and support of the LGBTQI community?

So, what to do? The Prime Minister suggested at one stage, albeit unsarcastically, that these issues are best dealt with by culture rather than law. I wholeheartedly agree.

First principle — share a common humanity in a common place.

Second principle — the Uluru Statement leads us to a foundational place of identity in diversity that reflects the wisdom accumulated over 65,000 years. We would do well to start there.

Third principle — freedom of speech is essential within the existing legal structure.

Final principle — minority and marginalised groups need to be enabled and supported in standing firm in the face of criticism through the evolution of a culture that accepts the speaker only ever describes the self.

The Christian community has been up in arms about comments made by Kyle Sandilands about the Virgin Mary, the Bible and faith in general. His comments only serve to reveal his ignorance and insensitivity to about 50 per cent of the planet’s population.

By taking responsibility for our responses to such comments, while ensuring they remain within existing legal structures, and supporting and enabling marginalised and minority groups in their civic agency, we are more able to negate the power of such comments. But for this to become a reality the media model also must change.

My wife Kerry and I are fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, never failing to be ever more deeply disturbed as we watch the Gilead story unfold, a story of dystopian theocracy. A story of containment in its most extreme and unhealthy form. Slippery slopes. Recently we put up a sign on our old battered street sign in Gosford … and I leave you with this as a metaphor for what I think about the religious freedom bill…

It’s time to leave Gilead … Praise Be!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily in keeping with Catholic thinking, are not endorsed by the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, and are published with a view to stimulating public conversation.


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