By MARK SPENCER
Editor’s Note: Mark Spencer is executive officer at Christian Schools Australia. We give full credit to the Australian Newspaper for publishing this very important viewpoint that the profound concern that the Morrison government is ignoring the Christian community. It is the very community of faith that voted them into office on the basis of protecting true Christian Freedom in Australia.
Faith has always been at the heart of our nation. Our Constitution draws the disparate states together “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. Long before Federation, indigenous spirituality and Dreamtime stories helped to explain the world and its creation. More recently, waves of migration have brought a variety of faiths to our shores. In many cases they came because of their faith, seeking freedom and safety, and the ability to live according to their beliefs without fear of persecution. We are as much the blessed country as the lucky one.
After decades of successful pluralism, we seem to be a little less blessed, a little less lucky, a little more fearful. The almost 40 per cent of Australians who voted No to redefining marriage, about five million people, saw a radical change to a centuries-old religious and cultural institution.
Seeing a Catholic archbishop dragged before an anti-discrimination commission for expressing basic Catholic teaching in a pastoral letter provided to parents who chose to send their children to Catholic schools sent a chill down the spine of many people of faith. A brewery boycotted over sponsoring a civil conversation on the topic, the coercion of employees to participate in Pride parades and a sporting star getting punted for a social media post had not only people of faith but also Australians of goodwill wondering what was happening to their land of a fair go.
These “quiet Australians” found their voice at this year’s federal election. With the Christian Schools Alliance and other groups raising concerns about religious freedom there was a “miracle” result. The leaders of the major parties reflected the analysis of the results and acknowledged the importance of religious freedom across a broad range of the electorate. The ordinary mums and dads with their children in Christian schools had spoken.
Against this background, Attorney-General Christian Porter has released a draft religious discrimination bill and some supporting legislation. Religious freedom is the oldest freedom protected in international law and a cornerstone of major international human rights instruments, and this bill seeks to fill a significant gap in Australian law. Recent parliamentary inquiries have acknowledged this vacuum and recommended legislation be introduced to ensure we honour our international commitments. The bill is long overdue.
Many aspects of the bill will be warmly received by religious institutions and people of faith across Australia. It is pleasing that the bill recognises that religious bodies do not discriminate “by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion”. Yet concerns have been expressed regarding the courts being given the power to decide what actions “may reasonably be regarded” as being connected with the relevant faith. Determining doctrinal purity or alignment are not matters in which courts are experienced or qualified.
The clear protection of statements of belief that are not malicious or likely to “harass, vilify or incite hatred or violence” from actions under anti-discrimination law should be welcomed by all Australians. We all want to protect our community from those seeking to incite violence, but we must be able to have the sort of robust discussion that is essential for our society. People of faith welcome our beliefs being challenged and debated; it is vital that competing ideas can be ventilated, that respectful disagreement can be had, that tolerance can be made real by allowing those with whom we disagree to have a voice.
What is less clear in the bill is the protections that might have applied to Israel Folau. Whether you agree with him or not, it would seem fundamental to a bill protecting religious freedom that the expression of religious belief by an individual must be protected. Initial advice is suggesting that this is not the case; there are many loopholes for employers to exploit. Clearly more work needs to be done in this area — it is one we must get right.
The Attorney-General has indicated that he is looking “forward to working constructively with interested parties in settling a final bill”. We look forward to this process and for the bill to be refined and improved in areas where it does not meet our obligations under international law.
The government must also consult with the opposition in relation to the bill. There are many people of faith within the opposition who can make a valuable contribution. Our prayer is that there will be bipartisan support for this vital area of law that affects all Australians.
[Photo by Ben White