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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.

Great Offense at Gay Marriage

A response to a letter to the RSA expressing Great Offense at Gay Marriage that is #SSM #samesame.

Published by the Rationalist Society of Australia website – 21 November 2017


From time to time we get unsolicited letters relating to one or other of our campaigns or policy stances. This one queries why the minority of LGBTI people in our community are being “allowed to undermine the rights of the majority.”

To RSA: On Civil Liberties and Human Rights, by Marianne Melnikas

I take great offense at Gay Marriage that is marriage equality. The LGBTI group will never have the equality of heterosexual couples. Why, simple as a norm a heterosexual couple can produce offspring without the need for a surrogate, donor egg or donor sperm. Yes some heterosexual couples do have trouble conceiving and need assistant of IVF, however this is not the norm.

For LGBTI people they will always need assistance to reproduce, why should a minority have a access to a program which was originally set up to assist otherwise childless heterosexual couples. Now it is down to whoever has the money.

As to actual marriage ceremony, it should be confined to civil ceremonies only, the State does not have the right to tell any religious body what services they can or cannot undertake.

LGBTI play both sides of the coin, they co-habitat and claim to be single when claiming Government Assistance. Yet a heterosexual couple are less able to make the same claims.

An individual, regardless of their sexual orientation, should not be forced to provide a service to a LGBTI couple wishing to marry or arrange to have a child. The right of the individual is being set aside to satisfy the LGBTI group, therefore discrimination is taking place which is not being addressed.

Why is this? Why are a minority Group being allowed to undermine the rights of the majority?traditionalmarriage

Yours

Marianne Melnikas

To Marianne Melnikas Re: Offense at Marriage Equality

Thank you to for your letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia outlining your “great offense at Gay Marriage”. Your argument provides an insight into some of the objections to Same Sex Marriage. In responding I’d like to try to clarify precisely what your offense at gay marriage entails, because your argument appears to fall prey to the fallacy of the non sequitur. As I’m sure you’re aware, this occurs when the conclusion does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement, often referred to in shorthand as “does not follow”.

You say “the LGBTI group” will never have equality with heterosexuals because “as a norm” they don’t produce offspring. And then, you readily acknowledge that some heterosexual couples cannot produce children either. You ask why should the minority LGBTI community, who will “always” need assistance to reproduce, have access to IVF which was set up for childless heterosexual couples? Well Marianne, why shouldn’t they have access to IVF? You seem to have omitted your reasons for excluding them. Aren’t both the LGBTI community and childless couples minority groups? What exactly is your rationale for wanting to grant the rights of one minority group and deny the other?

Even if IVF was set up for heterosexual couples, there’s no reason why this fact should exclude other couples. We need to assess the legitimacy of your reasoning to prohibit LGBTI couples. Perhaps a clue is found in your first sentence highlighting your “great offense”. Why take offense? Implied within your argument is the premise that because LGBTI couples cannot naturally have children, they should not be allowed to. You might also recognise this as the “naturalistic fallacy” — ie, just because something is natural does not necessarily mean it is right or good. MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker describes this as follows:

“The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the naturalistic fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave (as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK)”.

 

I’m confident you don’t ascribe to the naturalistic fallacy, and so I’m confused as to your “great offense”. Is it because of their sexuality? Because they’re not normal or immoral? They offend you because they are different?

You go on to assert several ways you feel LGBTI couples are infringing on the rights of individuals. Individuals may be forced to provide services to gay couples wanting to marry. But aren’t LGBTI people individuals also? What about their rights? It appears you want to deny their right to marry and raise children because they are a “minority” and “not the norm”.

But equality does not depend on what is the norm.

We assign rights on the basis of our shared humanity, rather than how similar we are to each other. That’s the whole basis of civil rights. That’s why it’s offensive to segregate black people, to refuse to service them or to relegate them to the back of the bus. Our rights do not depend on being part of the majority. Quite the opposite, in fact, as modern notions of human rights are rooted in the post-World War 2 Declaration of Human Rights which specifically sought to protect minorities.

You make the curious claim that governments should not have the right to tell any religious body what services they can or cannot undertake. Notwithstanding the fact that no government has proposed that churches be forced to perform same sex marriages, your assertion also subordinates our democratically elected government to any group claiming to be religious. Is this intentional? Should any religious body have carte blanche to perform any religious service? Think of exorcisms, animal or child sacrifice, circumcision, crucifixions, self-flagellation (such as Ashura day), sharia punishments, infant dropping, vine jumping and countless other harmful practices. I’m confident your answer would be no.

You claim that LGBTI couples cohabit but claim to be single, while claiming Government assistance, whereas heterosexuals are less able to do so. What evidence do you have of this claim? Wouldn’t this be a consequence of the law disallowing them to marry? So, if we make Same Sex Marriage a reality your problem is solved.

Feel free to respond with the missing premises of your argument. Irrespective, I hope this response provides some food for thought.

Best regards

Hugh Harris

Rationalist Society of Australia

We received no further correspondence from Ms Melnikas.

Legislating 18C Unbinds the Coalition from the SSM Plebiscite

This entry has previously been published as: Trying to Silence Unwelcome Views Only Perpetuates ThemThe Huffington Post Australia 6 September 2016
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The Coalition went to the last election promising not to put before parliament a vote on Same Sex Marriage, nor changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

And so, if the Coalition jettisons its pre-election commitment and supports Corey Bernardi’s bill to amend section 18C then there’s nothing stopping it from similarly considering marriage equality.

The “we-went-to-the-election-with” mantra is mute.

And if it succeeds, the government could quietly cancel what some have described as a $160 million festival of homophobia. Perhaps that’s a little unfair. (The final bill will probably be much more).

Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi has apparently secured the support of up to 20 Senators for a private members bill watering down Section 18C.

The free speech issue does not command the same level of public support as marriage equality.

But it should. It’s in Australia’s best interest to legislate on both amending 18C and marriage equality.

It’s folly of the highest order to imagine we can protect everyone in the country from offence or insult.

Remarkably, most of the commentary fails to acknowledge Section 18D whatsoever.

18D exempts art work, scientific debate and fair comment on matters of public interest from 18C, as long as they are said reasonably and in good faith.

Even though 18D goes some way toward mitigating 18C, it would still require mind readers and psychoanalysts to determine what speech is “reasonable” and in “good faith”.

Whether a recent cartoon by Bill Leak is reasonable or in good faith remains the subject of much ill-tempered dispute.

There’s plenty of things I’d like to say to Corey Bernardi that would offend and insult offend a reasonable person.

And, in the meantime, several QUT university students have their reputations and career prospects in tatters, by charges which will no doubt be ultimately thrown out.

Advocates for retaining 18C in its present form bring up the tiny percentage (3-5%) of convictions as an argument for retaining it; as if the huge numbers of spurious complaints, which choke up our legal process and benefit neither party, represent a virtue.

Don’t be fooled by the super-sized red herring which asks you to reject changes to 18C because most of the free speech advocates are whale-sized bigots.

Even if some of them are, it’s not their opinions at stake. It’s about what the general public – that is, you and I – are allowed to read or hear.

Do we really wish to censor ourselves from such views?

Those with unorthodox views on race or ethnicity don’t appear to have changed their minds in the decades 18C has been in place. We even vote some of them into parliament.

Meanwhile, we’ve cultivated a culture of vilifying people who do or say the “wrong” thing.

The media feeds on and recirculates the outrage until it becomes a many-headed hydra, bigger and scarier and more hateful than the prejudice from which it was spawned. And the media-storm seems to attract more followers to the xenophobic cause than it turns away.

The phenomenon is more advanced in other western democracies, resulting in unfortunate blowback in the form of Brexit and the popularity of Donald Trump.

Give bigots their right to speak. History teaches us that trying to silence unwelcome views only ferments and perpetuates them.

Disagreeable and prejudiced views should not be answered by outrage, rather by well-formed evidence based arguments placing the spotlight on their failures, fallacies and inherent bigotry.

The same logic applies to debate on same sex marriage. While I think the parliament should simply legalise marriage equality, we have nothing to fear from debate.

Sure, it will bring unsavoury views to the surface. And certainly, those views will insult and offend many in the LGBTI community. But would we rather pretend those views did not exist?

Wouldn’t discussing and challenging those views, debating them, and ultimately defeating them, be far more satisfying than silencing them?

Notwithstanding that, SSM has been debated ad nauseam for a long time now. We don’t need a non-binding plebiscite to tell us what opinion polls already have: the majority of Australians support SSM.

Bernardi claimed in March 2016 that redefining marriage is not dinner table conversation outside of the “militant homosexual lobby” and “twitterati”.

But 18C is? It’s hard to imagine tweaking the Racial Discrimination Act is dinner table fare for anyone beyond libertarians, and hard liners.

In response to the suggestion that other priorities super cede changing 18C, Bernardi said the government should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”.

While this leaves us imagining Senators entangled in chewing gum while eating their dinner, there’s no reason or mixed metaphor, which would preclude the government from legislating on both important issues.

Remember the golden rule of eating gum – you must bring enough for everyone.

If Malcolm Turnbull can seize the gauntlet and use the bill on 18C to justify a free vote on marriage equality, he’d achieve the dual benefit of reasserting his own leadership and seeing the back of two distracting and divisive issues.

So, let’s offer a toast to Corey Bernardi, wishing him good luck in removing “insult” and “offend” from Section 18C, thus, bringing marriage equality to the table. Resolve these and the Turnbull regime can move forward.

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.

read more

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…