The Meaning of Religious Freedom

The Meaning of Religious Freedom August 23, 2013

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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