Opinion

What sort of religious freedom do we actually need?

Is religious freedom in Australia really under threat and if so what is the cause and remedy?

By George Browning

May 29 2018
There can be little doubt that religious practice is on the back foot in Australia and therefore some people of faith and their religious leaders feel under siege. This perception was exacerbated by the overwhelming vote in favour of marriage equality in November 2017 and its subsequent passing into law. But is religious freedom in Australia really under threat and if so what is the cause and remedy?

 
Following the marriage equality vote, the Government commissioned a Religious Freedom Review, appointing a panel with former Howard Government Attorney-General Philip Ruddock as chair. While the panel delivered its report to the Government on 18th May, we are led to believe its contents may not be made public for some time.
 
There are several reasons why religion generally and Christianity in particular are finding themselves with less and less relevance, sometimes interpreted as a loss of freedom, within Australian society.
 
The most obvious reason is that the behaviour of some religious adherents, including leadership, has scandalised the community generally and brought opprobrium to the faith. For Christianity this has not only been the appalling breach of trust in relation to children in the Church’s care, but equally appallingly the obvious priority given by the Church to its reputation over the needs and rights of the victims of this abuse. It is true that this abuse has extended well beyond the Church to almost every form of institutional care of children; it is also true that a child is far more likely to be abused by a trusted member of their own family than a person representing an institution, but neither of these realities lessen the guilt of the Church and some of its members.

For Islam the opprobrium has related to the way violence has been perpetrated in the name of the religion, and within Australia, the way young have been radicalised. It is therefore very significant that the newly elected Grand Mufti, Dr Abdel Aziem Al Afifi, has made it his priority to address this issue.
 
It is considered inappropriate by many in civil society for views held by people of faith on issues of personal morality to be seemingly imposed in any way on the wider community. Euthanasia, abortion, and sexual practice, other than that which is clearly abusive, is simply a matter of personal choice, and all fall into this category. It will be interesting to see how the panel has addressed this issue, which one might assume has been at the heart of its work. There are good reasons why the virtues of ‘traditional marriage’ can and should be promoted without demeaning other partnerships. There are good reasons why abortion should always remain a contentious issue, for alongside the justifiable reasons why abortion can and should be supported, there are other reasons, partly related to the length of the pregnancy and partly related to value seemingly given to parental lifestyle over the value of an unborn life that should be contested. There are good reasons why euthanasia should become a topic of open debate, but there also needs to be a broadening of the education of the general public so that the benefits and limits (such as they may be) of palliative care are better understood.

The work the panel has done to address these issues will be a matter of considerable interest. The Anglican Church is currently retaining the ‘freedom’ to demand its licensed officiants only preside over ‘traditional marriages’ as a matter of Church teaching. Many Anglican clergy would strongly disagree with this position, but if they wish to retain their authority under Anglican licence, they must comply. On the other hand welcoming LGBTQI members, according respect and dignity, and providing all normal civil courtesies should be assumed and non-controversial.
 
Some of the strongest requests for protection of ‘religious freedom’ are likely to have come from the conservative wings of faith. It is these wings who make it easy for the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens to parody, even ridicule, belief. Rather than people of religion being protected in their rights to believe and teach whatever they wish to believe and teach, I would argue the wider community, especially children, should be protected from exposure to nonsense from those whom they are led to believe are trustworthy. A creationist view of history should not be accorded a place in any school curriculum, religious or secular, as an alternative to science. Truth cannot be divided. Observable data confines a short view of history to the world of fantasy. No one should be allowed into a child’s classroom contesting science based on a literal scriptural interpretation. In like manner an interpretation of the Koran which encourages violence or even disrespect to another human being has no place in a liberal democratic society and deserves no protection. No one should be allowed into a class room who might encourage children to believe that persons are more or less acceptable on the basis of sexual orientation.
 
It should always be the case that people of faith, especially Christian faith, will speak and stand for justice, be it in relation to refugees, indigenous people, the environment, children, the poor, etc. Vested interests will always attempt to minimise this voice, using money or slogans: ‘do-gooders’, ‘greenies’, ‘socialists’, ‘happy clappers’, etc., but the right, indeed responsibility, as followers of Jesus to speak and act in this way needs no protection. The responsibility should simply be taken and exercised. There have been numerous attempts over the years to ‘shut me up’. Most famously when the then Premier of Queensland ordered me out of his State on the front page of the Courier Mail, and far less publicly when a Prime Minister called me in for a dressing down following a speech I had made. People of religion need no protection of freedom to speak for justice and righteousness. Indeed the more this might appear to be supressed the more the right and duty should be exercised. The great sadness is that the capacity of politicians to publicly declare their faith appears to bear no correlation to their likelihood to stand up for matters of justice and equity.  Which leads me to the final point.
 
“You cannot love God and mammon” (Mtt: 6.24). Without dispute mammon is miles ahead. The only political value is economic. This is unfortunately underlined by almost every utterance that proceeds from the mouths, especially the important mouths, ‘on the hill’. Virtually no value is currently being accorded to environmental or ecological issues. Recent announcements that great tracts of land are to be bulldozed inland of the Great Barrier Reef and more than $400 million is to be given to a foundation run by business people with no expertise in the field and no expressions of interest called for from other entities is enough proof of this statement – if any were needed.
As John Hewson has said, the NDIS is being used as an endless supply of jobs for private contractors that are rushing to the latest gravy train in the same way that others had run to the pink bat gravy train. The shameless refusal of government to increase the Newstart allowance is another example. So many more could be recited. The Government’s refusal to appropriately fund a regulator with teeth for the banking industry, for example.  And then there is the spectacle of our previous Deputy Prime Minster selling his story for $150,000 and putting the money into a family trust to avoid tax.
 
Alexander Downer once asked me at a Government House reception “and can’t the rich be saved?”.  (To this day I am unsure what I had said or done to provoke the question). The answer is: of course, yes!  We are no more or less worthy, rich or poor. The difference is that the wealthy face a question which the poor will never face “what are you going to do with it”?
 
In Australia people of religion must be very wary of asking for any further ‘freedoms’.  The greatest and most secure freedom will arise from a recognition that people of faith make such a contribution to the wellbeing of society that the thought of their absence is inconceivable. We are currently a long way from that point.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 27 May 20178 See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au