The Meaning of Religious Freedom

Over at ABC Religion and Ethics, Cardinal George Pell has a good article The Meaning of Religious Freedom and the Future of Human Rights. I liked these points:

  1. Freedom of religion is not just freedom to go to church on Sundays or pray at home. It also means being free to act on your beliefs in the public square, to speak about them and seek to persuade others. It means not being coerced or bullied into silence by speech-control and equality laws or by accusations of “Homophobe!” “Discrimination!” “Anti-Choice!” or “I’m offended!”
  2. Freedom of religion means being free to provide services that are consistent with the beliefs of the sponsoring religion. Neither the government nor anyone else has the right to say to religious agencies “we like your work with vulnerable women; we just need you to offer them abortion as well” or “we really like your schools, but we can’t allow you to teach that marriage between a man and a woman is better or truer than other expressions of love and sexuality.” Our agencies are there for everyone without discrimination, but provide distinctive teachings and operations. In a wealthy, sophisticated country like Australia, leaving space for religious agencies should not be difficult.
  3. Religious freedom means being able to employ at least a critical mass of employees who support the ethos of the sponsoring religion. All Catholic works are first and foremost works of religion. Our hospitals, schools, universities, welfare agencies, services for the refugees, the disabled and the homeless are established because this is what our faith in Christ the Lord impels us to do. The good people happy to help us in these works as staff or volunteers do not all need to share the faith, but they need to be happy to support it and work within it. It is also essential that a preference can be exercised for people who are actively committed to the religious convictions at the heart of these services. It is not enough for just the CEO or the religion teacher to be Catholic. It is not unjust discrimination to prefer committed Catholics to staff Catholic services, but it is coercion to attempt to interfere in or restrict our freedom to do so. No one would dream of suggesting that, for example, the ALP must employ some activist members of the Liberal Party.
  4. Religious freedom and government funding. The secular state is religiously neutral and has no mandate to exclude religion, especially when a large majority of the population are Christians or followers of other major religions. Church members also pay taxes. Substantial levels of government funding are no reason to prohibit religious schools, hospitals and welfare agencies from offering services compatible with their beliefs, and provide no sufficient reason to coerce them to act against their principles. The separation of church and state provides important protections for religious communities against the intrusions of governments. In a free society like our own, different groups have a right to make distinctive offerings, provided they are not damaging the common good. We need to foster a tolerant pluralism, not intolerant secularism.


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  • Zippy the Pin Head

    Never mind that the last short paragraph quoting Benedict re the “catholic” church asking for and seeking no favours (from the secular state etc). hoists George Pell on his own pretentious petard.
    I seem to remember that the Vatican pretends to be an independent poltical state and that it thus enjoys full diplomatic recognition from many other REAL poltical states, and furthermore its senior members (its “princes” or ponces) enjoy full diplomatic immunity for any crimes they commit. And that the Vatican and the people who live and work there (including known criminals) are exempt from the reach of Italian law. The Vatican has of course harbored known criminals and its various banks have been actively involved in the laundering of criminal money from all sorts of shady outfits including the mafia. At one stageThe USA State Department openly acknowledged this situation.
    And that the Vatican’s vast real estate and business interests in Rome and Italy are exempt from Italian taxation and business laws. Never mind too that the “catholic” church was and is the “official” state religion of many Western states, a situation which thus gives it many favors. The secular Germany state automatically pays/gives to the “catholic” church what is in effect a poll tax – even on behalf of citizens who are not “catholics” or object to the tax.
    Then of course there is the situation re the granting of special legal favors beyond the reach of state laws in many countries described at this site:

    And why not Google The Vatican in World Politics re how the Vatican really operates in the world – not a pretty picture!

  • Patrick

    In the US, the 1st amendment guarantees( often not observed by the state though) “free exercise thereof” to our religions.

    Of course the US doesn’t observe these things at times, just making the point our forefathers felt it necessary to make it unlawful for our governors to ever impede our free EXERCISE of our faith.

    Being unlawful doesn’t concern too many of we Americans though, so the state pretty much does as it pleases and does interfere at times in various religious enterprise.

    • Rich Rodgers

      You’ll need to be more specific. Because if your religion happens to include drowning puppies and toddlers, of course your free exercise may be interfered with. Or your “free exercise” may include not allowing other religious ideas to be freely expressed. It’s not a matter of out of control gov’t as much as practicality and fairness to all religions and none.

  • Marcion

    “Freedom of religion is not just freedom to go to church on Sundays or pray at home. It also means being free to act on your beliefs in the public square, to speak about them and seek to persuade others. It means not being coerced or bullied into silence by speech-control and equality laws or by accusations of “Homophobe!” “Discrimination!” “Anti-Choice!” or “I’m offended!””

    You seem to have confused freedom of religion with freedom from criticism. Just because your beliefs are religious in nature doesn’t mean others have to stay silent if they disagree. You don’t have the right to morally condemn others while remaining free from moral condemnation yourself.

    • Dorfl

      I second this. Even if he was talking about freedom of speech instead of freedom of religion, Ken White’s words absolutely apply here:

      “Let’s be clear — the right to free speech is the right to express oneself without state retaliation. It is not a right to speak without social retaliation. Speech has consequences. Among those consequences are condemnation, vituperation, scorn, ridicule, and pariah status. Those consequences represent other people exercising their free speech rights. That’s a feature of the marketplace of ideas, not a bug.”

  • Spuddie

    1. Your religious exercise does not mean you are immune from criticism of its beliefs and actions.

    2. No. You hold your business out to the public, you have to serve the public. Doing otherwise is to violate the Civil Rights Act and various local anti-discrimination laws. It is no more valid to refuse to serve gays out of religious belief than it is to refuse to serve blacks because you are a Christian Identity adherent. Having a religious belief does not make one immune to laws serve a well justified societal interest. For example, you can’t be excused from murder charges when committing human sacrifice.

    3. No, see #2. Employment discrimination is still employment discrimination. Whether you claim its religious in nature is immaterial. Your right to free exercise of religion ends when it causes harm to others.

    4. Your faith does not require my tax dollars, ever. See #2 again. When you hold yourself out to the public to provide services, you must serve the entire public. Where religious groups have supplanted government ones and taken on roles assumed by government services the need for religious adherence must give way to the public interest.

  • Nemo

    Regarding item #1: yes, you do have that right. However, just as the Bible Bobs of the world (nickname for a preacher on my old campus) have the right to scream “worship Jesus or burn in HELL!!!!”, so too do onlookers have the right to sarcastically shout back that Odin will slay him at Ragnarock.