Australia’s culture wars have hit peak hysteria with concerns that a religious freedom bill is about to unleash a wave of bigotry and phobias against various minorities.
The recent melee is part of the aftershock following the legislation of same-sex marriage which requires a settlement to enshrine religious freedom for those who dissented to it and is further complicated by the furor surrounding athlete Israel Folau who was dismissed from and then settled with Rugby Australia for instagramming a gloss on 1 Cor 6:9-10 about murderers, thieves, and homosexual offenders going to hell.
Fairfax Media has led the charge in alarming the populace to the coming hordes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are ready and waiting, prepared and poised, salivating at the prospect that they will have unfettered powers to verbally abuse and attack everyone they’ve ever despised. In a recent article, former chief justice Michael Kirby said that the legislation will encourage the bigots and those who hide behind religious claims to pursue an agenda of hate.” Even celebrities like Ian Thorpe, who have no expertise in religion, law, human rights, or secularism, are now sticking their nose in this debate and lobbying politicians not to pass the legislation.
But there are good reasons for a religious protection bill.
First, there is a gap in Australia’s religious freedom protections. Section 116 of the Australian constitution ensures freedom of religion and no establishment of religion BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, but it does not apply to STATE GOVERNMENT. What state governments have are mostly exemptions to anti-discrimination laws to preserve religious freedoms and the integrity of religious organizations. But those exemptions are inherently problematic because: (1) They define religious freedom as an exemption to an otherwise legal norm; and (2) There is a real danger that exemptions can be weaponized against various minorities if not exercised in good faith or part of a wider suite of protections and balances. Let us remember too that in 1988, the Hawke government, wisely and with good intentions, proposed a constitutional amendment to extend religious freedom protections to encompass both federal and state jurisdictions, but it was defeated for a multiplicity of reasons. Thus, I have to ask, if there is no problem or gap with Australia’s religious freedom protections, then why did the Hawke government propose a constitutional amendment some 40 years earlier? Even the ABC fact check unit was compelled – under the duress of overwhelming evidence – to admit that Australia’s religious freedom protections were a patchwork and required some gap filling.
Second, as Catholic priest and jurist Frank Brennan has pointed out: “If you have a Sex Discrimination Act, age discrimination legislation, disability discrimination legislation and a Racial Discrimination Act, then why not a religious discrimination act?” He says that the Ruddock panel recommended “that steps be taken … to develop a Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Act directed at the provision of comprehensive protection against discrimination based on religious belief or activity, including the absence of religious belief.” It makes sense to make religion a protected category within a multi-cultural and pluralistic democracy, a land of fall faiths and none. But we need to stop viewing the issue of religious freedom exclusively through the lens of the Israel Folau saga and instead legislate comprehensive and balanced protections that reflect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights article 18.
What about the bigoted hordes about to descend upon the voiceless and vulnerable once the legislation is passed?
For example, the Guardian has warned that if the bill is passed then we have a situation whereby: A single mother who, when dropping her child off at daycare, may be told by a worker that she is sinful for denying her child a father. A woman may be told by a manager outside work that women should submit to their husbands or that women should not be employed outside the home. A student with disability may be told by a teacher their disability is a trial imposed by God. A person of a minority faith may be told by a retail assistant from another religion that they are a “heathen destined for eternal damnation.”
Similarly, writing from within the UCA, Grace Sweeney worries that: “As a divorcee, I could be denied services because I’m living in sin. As a single mum, this bill gives license for my daughter’s teachers to tell her that we’re not a real family. As a woman in a male dominated industry, I think about the Christians who believe it’s sinful for women to work outside the home, or have authority over men.”
I will not deny the validity of the concerns being made with a genuine worry about vilification and discrimination, though I think they can be assuaged. But on the whole, this concern is merely rehearsing the trope that religion, especially traditional and conservative religion, is nothing more than hate-speech seeking an opportunity to unleash itself on the innocent and unsuspecting.
First, according to the legislation, speech like this, which potentially offends can only be made if it is made in good faith, it is not malicious or harass, vilify or incite hatred against a person or group, and does not advocate for the commission of a serious criminal offence against a person, so it is not exactly a carte blanche or a free for all, there are restrictions.
Second, it is ALREADY LEGAL to say most of this stuff. There is nothing stopping someone on the bus next to you from saying to you that eating bacon is sacrilege, infidels go to hell, God hates divorces, God made human beings as male and female, Oprah is Lord of lords and you must sacrifice koalas to her image, or anything like that. Freedom of speech already protects one’s opinions on-line or in person. Furthermore, even if the legislation passes, employers will be within their rights to tell employees to keep their opinions to themselves and to re-train employees if they irritate clients. The question is do we want to sack people from employment if they manifest disagreeable opinions in private or on-line even if made in good faith and without any malice?
Forget Israel Folau, consider the plight of disabled grandad Brian Leach of the UK who was sacked by supermarket giant ASDA because he shared a video on facebook of comedian Billy Connelly insulting religion, including Islam, to which a colleague complained. After an investigation by management, and even after Leach apologized and took down the video, Leach was sacked by ASDA. Should atheists be sacked for sharing funny atheist humour on facebook if it offends Muslims or Hindus? I do not endorse the on-line activities of Folau or Leach, both were distasteful for my mind, but do we want employers, colleagues, and clients empowered to monitor our social media accounts for religious or anti-religious speech that they can use to terminate our employment?
Third, note the underlying allegations of misanthropy. Misanthropy is hatred of the human race, a charge that has been used against Christians and Jews by both Romans and Communists, that believers are consumed by hatred as evidenced by their refusal to adopt the values of the surrounding culture. The idea is that your Muslim uber-driver is secretly and surely biding his time so once the religious freedom legislation is passed he can verbally abuse a single woman for being pregnant. Or else, your Orthodox Jewish accountant is surreptitiously practicing his speech to call you a wretched unclean goyim for eating shellfish and living with your girlfriend without being married to her. Or your Catholic aunt is busily collecting a list of abusive chants that she can use on gay and trans kids, so once the legislation is passed, she is gonna run down to the nearest school with her rosary and rancor to unleash the hatred. So beware all you white inner-city progressives because the Jews, the Catholics, and the Muslims are lurking in the shadows ready to pounce on you with their armory of invectives once this bill is passed, moowohaha! Yes, okay, there are some jerks out there in every religion and none, but the opposition to the religious freedom bill is premised on a prejudiced caricature that people of faith are cartoonishly evil.
It seems that within Australia that we have two approaches to religion.
One that says that religion is inherently toxic, we begrudgingly tolerate its varieties that have not acquiesced to the progressive program only because we do not have the stomach to do what is necessary to sanitize it from the public square (Why can’t we be more like China!). So in the interim, we must apply the coercive power of government to teach them a lesson, so we will force Catholic hospitals to perform late-term abortions and force Muslim schools to appoint atheists as principal. Humiliate people of faith into submission.
Another one approach declares that religion is ubiquitous in a multi-cultural society, it contributes to the common good, it creates culture and provides meaning to many people’s lives, although it needs guard rails to ensure that sectarian violence never arises, it must be balanced with other rights, and the secularity of government needs to be enshrined, but religious freedom is a genuinely good thing.
If we are to avoid the former and choose the latter option, then we need some kind of religious freedom protections, to let the Jews Jew, the Muslims Muslim, the Rastafarians Rasta, and the Christians Christian. It really ain’t that hard.