Champions Of ‘Religious Freedom’ Should Be Careful What They Pray For

Champions Of ‘Religious Freedom’ Should Be Careful What They Pray For – Published in HuffPost Australia 6 October 2017

Religious liberty should not become a Trojan horse for perpetuating certain views.

 

By invoking a supposed threat to religious freedom, the scare campaign against same-sex marriage illuminates a common misunderstanding of what the term means — highlighting how it has become a proxy for religious privilege, used to shield a particular subset of traditionalist beliefs. The same beliefs held by John Howard, the Australian Christian Lobby, Tony Abbott and conservative pundits such as Paul Kelly.

They should be careful what they wish for, because a wider understanding of religious freedom would threaten the many privileges faith groups continue to enjoy in this country. That’s why Christian groups have opposed all new laws aimed at assuring religious freedom since 1980. By trading on an historical respect for faith, but seeking to protect only their own narrow range of beliefs, they risk eroding that respect even further.

Religious freedom cannot mean that one set of beliefs ought to take precedence over another, or that religious ideas should trump nonreligious ideas.

However, religious freedom is widely understood to be exclusive to faith-based beliefs. And, for the ‘threat’ argument to have any teeth, one must accept that society should actively discriminate in favour of religious convictions.

Cake makers, florists and wedding registrars must be allowed to act in accordance with their faith, notwithstanding the beliefs of those supporting the same-sex union. The ‘threat’ is that the law will force the faithful to act against their conscience.

This is framed as ‘protection’. But, why are only religious beliefs worthy of protection? What this would mean in practice, is the faithful gain a special pass to exempt themselves from the laws of the land. But, paraphrasing George Orwell, why are some beliefs more equal than others?

religious freedom

Sabre-rattlers of religious freedom are running a campaign antithetical to their own agenda.

 

We generally don’t exempt individuals from the law on account of their beliefs. Government employees who disagree with immigration policy cannot refuse to implement policy. Business owners cannot ignore laws which impinge on their conscience. Controversially, only religious organisations get the privilege of exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation.

But here’s the problem — freedom of belief was never intended as a magic wand for the faithful.

Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights vouchsafes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, and protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, and the right to profess any belief. The progenitor of religious freedom is freedom of thought; which U.S. Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Cardozo described as “the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom”.

undhr freedom of thought

There is no belief hierarchy where certain beliefs carry more weight than others — beliefs are protected until they impinge on others. Religious liberty should not become a Trojan horse for perpetuating certain views.

Nor is religious freedom unlimited. The High Court of Australia has always enforced Section 116 rather narrowly, balancing religious freedom with the public good. In 1912 it upheld compulsory military training for boys in spite of their religious objections, and in the 1943 Jehovah’s Witnesses case, it ruled that the Constitution did not protect the church from engaging in activities prejudicing the war effort. In Kruger v Commonwealth(1997) it was found that Section 116 allowed laws which indirectly prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Thus, according to our own High Court, the right to manifest religious beliefs is not absolute, and must exist in balance with other considerations.

In many countries, religious freedom is protected as part of a Bill of Rights along with other key freedoms. However, the same-sex marriage opponents explicitly reject a Bill of Rights, evidently, preferring religious freedom to remain unfettered by a modern understanding of human rights.

Which raises the question of how marriage equality represents a threat to our freedoms?

In an article for ABC Religion & Ethics, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher described as follows, the supposedly dystopian future Australia which would result from legalising marriage equality:

  • evangelical business owners are threatened with legal action for discriminating against gay weddings,
  • religious schools would be forced to teach a state-approved tolerant ‘gay friendly’ curriculum,
  • religious instruction in secular state schools has been scrapped,
  • religious organisations have lost their charitable status, and now “pay the same taxes and rates levied on any other business”.

What a prodigious slide down the slippery slope! Just how legalising same-sex marriage would suddenly result in the end of tax free status, is not explained. Even so, these ‘consequences’ are hardly horrifying.

Indeed, they are all issues in which freedom of thought, conscience and religion is balanced with the rights of individuals and the public good.

Religious freedom does not only apply to those who take the Bible literally. Equally, it applies to Christians who support same-sex marriage; to the 40 percent of LGBTQ people who are Christian, to those who hold spiritual beliefs, those of other faiths, and those with no faith.

Capturing the essence of religious liberty, the UK Secretary of Employment said in 2005, that a hallmark of a civilised society is respect for each other’s beliefs. Safeguarding and balancing the rights of individuals in a pluralist society enables multiple belief systems to coexist in harmony.

Thus, sabre-rattlers of religious freedom are running a campaign antithetical to their own agenda. They should exercise caution with their blades, lest their wishes are granted.

The Church and its weakening grip over Telstra and taxes

The Church and its weakening grip over Telstra and taxes – ABC’s The Drum 14 April 2016

News that Telstra has apparently bowed to pressure from the Catholic Church and backed away from public support for marriage equality comes at a time many Australians are reconsidering the role of religion in our society.

Telstra and other corporations had lent their logos to a full page ad run by Marriage Equality Australia in May last year.

The Archdiocese of Sydney wrote to these corporations “with grave concern” about the marriage equality campaign, highlighting how the Catholic Church is “a significant user of goods and services from many corporations”.

Telstra quietly capitulated, saying it has “no further plans to figure prominently in the wider public debate”. According to the Australian, a “person familiar with the company’s decision” said Telstra did not want to “risk its commercial relationship with the church”.

Using its buying power to effectively threaten a boycott is a high handed and cynical move on the part of the Church. Perhaps this sort of behaviour helps us to understand why antipathy towards organised religion seems to be increasing in Australia.

Nearly two in three Australians think tax breaks for advancing religion should go, according to two recent surveys.

According to a new poll by Ipsos, 64 per cent of Australians favour scrapping tax free status for churches and basic religious groups. Less than 20 per cent said tax breaks should remain, and 16.5 per cent were unsure.

More than half (55.1 per cent) of those surveyed disagreed that advancing religion is of public benefit. Only 20.7 per cent said they agreed, with a further 24.2 per cent saying advancing religion may be of public benefit.

The results provide a stunning correlation with last week’s Essential Report, where 64 per cent of those surveyed disapprove of the tax free status of religious groups. Significantly, 39 per cent “strongly disapprove”. Disapproval was consistent across all major parties, with the Liberal/National Party voters recording 63 per cent, and those aged 55 years and over at 73 per cent.

If antipathy to religion and its special treatment continues to grow, the pressure on governments to respond accordingly will eventually become irresistible.

Public opinion has undergone a seismic shift. Rather than ask why remove tax free status, Australians are now asking, “Why not?” The thought that only one in five Australians think advancing religion is beneficial to the public must be deeply troubling for religious advocates.

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John Howard’s Christian Right Feels Silenced, And They’re Telling Anyone Who’ll Listen

John Howard’s Christian Right Feels Silenced, And They’re Telling Anyone Who’ll Listen – New Matilda 03/01/2016

A screengrab of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, appearing on Channel 9's 60 minutes program in 2012.

“People are too scared to speak”, claims ex-Prime Minister John Howard amidst a mood of growing resentment towards the Coalition’s Christian Right. Howard has called out a “minority fundamentalism” where progressives attempt to silence others. By example, he cites the branding of those who oppose gay marriage as homophobes, and the controversy over the Tasmanian anti-marriage equality booklet.

We see this phenomenon regularly – the pre-emptive branding of an opponent’s view by some type of slur. But this applies to all sides of politics. Cory Bernardi heckled Bill Shorten calling him “a fraud”. Shorten responded in kind, dubbing him a “homophobe”. But then, a doe-eyed Bernardi complained that “it’s disappointing someone seeking to be PM resorts to name calling”.

Tut-tut – glass houses and all that.

Read more…

Can Australian Catholicism Save Itself From Its Ultra-Conservative Forces?

New Matilda 22 February 2016 – Can Australian Catholicism Save Itself From Its Ultra-Conservative Forces? (images courtesy New Matilda)

(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).

The leaked allegations of child abuse against Cardinal George Pell aren’t surprising, nor should they particularly diminish anyone’s opinion of him. Simply, there’s no room below rock-bottom. No need then for a new Tim Minchin song, or any reappraisal at all. Whether they have basis in fact remains to be seen.

The only certainty is that, regardless of the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, or the outcome of police investigations, Pell will never face a punishment commensurate with his failures.

This is just the latest in a series of recent public relations disasters for the Catholic Church. The aftershocks will reverberate for some time. But amidst these ructions, Australian Catholicism might find a ray of hope in casting out some of its more vocal and acidulous conservative colleagues. A more progressive and non-partisan church leadership would be a good thing – and dare I say, one more in line with the Christian values espoused by Jesus.

Pell cited health grounds to avoid appearing in person for the hearings of the Royal Commission. Given the year-long investigation into multiple allegations of abuse against him by the Victoria Police SANO taskforce, many will conclude he had other reasons for refusing to come. Pell cannot be compelled to answer questions whilst he remains in Rome.

It’s not the first time allegations of sexual abuse have been levelled at Pell. In 2002, a church-inquiry found insufficient evidence to uphold the charge Pell molested a boy on a Phillip Island holiday camp in the early 1960’s. In contrast to Pell’s claim that he was “exonerated”, the Southwell inquiry concluded the testimony of both Pell and his accuser were credible, but there was insufficient cause to establish the allegation.

Having affixed his wagon to conservative forces, Pell’s own troubles exacerbate the steady worsening of community sentiment towards conservative Christianity. Read more here.

(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)

 

 

Religious Freedom Protects Same-Sex Couples Too

New Matilda December 22, 2015

Religious Freedom Protects Same-Sex Couples Too

Marriage-Equality-740x457@2x

The sleight of hand placing religious freedom at the centre of the same-sex marriage debate disguises its real purpose. A wave of the wand, a puff of smoke, and the rights of some have disappeared. So goes the illusionist’s trick that freedom of belief applies only to the faithful.

cont…