20 April 2018Feature
The Religious Freedom Review, an expert panel to inquire into the protection of religious freedom in Australia, was announced on 22 November 2017. The expert panel, with Philip Ruddock as its chair, is due to hand down its report on 18 May 2018. In the wake of the same-sex marriage debate, the findings of the review promise to be controversial, and to re-ignite the debate on the role of religion in society. For OPMG’s second collective article, our editors weigh in with their thoughts on religious freedom.
Image credit: Mick Tsikas (Australian Associated Press)
For those who have read some of my previous articles, you’ll have picked up that I’m a Christian. However, you’ll probably have also picked up that I’m not your typical Christian. I voted yes to same-sex marriage, and I’m not particularly traditional in many of my views. As such, my thoughts on religious freedom aren’t necessarily what you’d expect.
On the one hand, I believe that it is good for groups within society to have a voice; to be able to talk about their opinions freely and without hostility or persecution. But then, perhaps there should be exceptions to this — do we want extremist groups to be able to express their opinions? If the “opinion” that is being expressed is generally deemed to be hurtful, violent, etc., do we allow that? However, I’m wandering a touch off-topic here. If that’s a topic that does interest you, perhaps go and have a look at these segments I did.
Religious groups are a little different. While there are still extremists within them (as you’ll find in any group that’s big enough), generally speaking, many of the opinions they’re expressing have, at the very least, a good intent. This will vary case-by-case, of course, and some groups have a rather terrible track record. But often, they’re relatively — well, nice.
The problem, however, lies in the influence that they have, and have had. Religions, and particularly Christianity within the western world, have had a tremendous influence on society as a whole; often still affecting the governments, even when we live in a world that generally believes in the separation of church and state. Many of our laws can be traced back to basic Biblical principles, such as the Ten Commandments. We have laws that literally reference the Good Samaritan.
And this, I feel, is the issue — and a similar one that has popped up with women’s rights and freedoms compared to men’s. Religion (and also men) have held the power for so long, that they feel a bit scared to give it up now. They feel the pendulum swinging the other way, and so they start calling out for equality, worrying that they will be persecuted, or that they are now victims. But, in fact, this is equality. Religion (and men) have had thousands of years in the spotlight. It’s time for others to have that spotlight. And if that means that religion feels a bit bullied for a while — maybe that’s a good thing. They might learn a little something called humility. I think I remember a guy saying something about that somewhere…he had this name starting with J…Joshua? Jesse? It’ll come back to me.
When we discuss religious freedom, there is often no middle-ground. One side believes a country not led by God is an abomination and things like same-sex marriage is a sign Satan is taking over; and the other side believes whoever this God-person is should not have any role in my choices, my laws, or my country. What is largely over-looked is that there is another option — a balance of the two.
This balance I speak of gives individuals complete autonomy over their beliefs and their choice to believe, while simultaneously not impairing religious practices. There needs to be an understanding that it is the individual’s right to decide what they believe or do not believe, and how they live. An understanding that beliefs and religion are complicated and personal. Ultimately it comes down to respect, which I believe is a universal concept.
Now, when it comes to the influence on Western society, it is important to note that much of what is generally considered right and wrong has biblical roots. This has not always been positive, but there are basic principles which are the foundation of our overall morality — murder is wrong, for example. To say that Christianity’s influence on Western culture has been entirely negative would be just as wrong as saying it has been entirely positive. Both of these concerns can be remedied by ensuring religious influence on laws does not restrict the liberty of individuals.
There is a balance that should exist. Freedom is not freedom if it is at the expense of another’s personal liberty.
Freedom of religion protects not only the right to hold certain convictions, but also the right against having beliefs imposed on you. In a secular democracy like Australia, where we do not have a state religion and are constitutionally-barred from having one, it is an important freedom.
We are free to believe what we like, but when it comes to acting upon those beliefs we are constrained by the law. Religious belief, however sincere, is no defence to committing a criminal offence.
But we also permit certain exceptions to other laws, especially discrimination laws. This affords a great deal of autonomy to these bodies and institutions to regulate their own internal structures.
Problems arise when essentially religious concepts like marriage are afforded legal status or protection. Is solemnising a marriage a religious function or a civil function?
You do not need to be religious to be married in Australia, implying marriage is fundamentally civil. But until recently you did have to be heterosexual, and religious organisations have been afforded carveouts to ensure that they can’t be forced to perform or recognise certain marriages.
This puts us in an awkward situation. Secular society must recognise everyone who is legally married as married, but religious bodies do not have to recognise everyone who is legally married as married if that marriage, however lawful, violates their tenets.
Religious freedom does not, in my view, mean carveouts. We should not have two sets of laws: if a law is necessary, it must apply to all; if it can’t be applied to all, it is unnecessary.
Our land of the “fair go” is built on human rights. We defend the rule of law and affirm that all people should control their destiny according to their conscience.
It is in this light that s116 of our Constitution upholds freedom of religion. We pride ourselves on being a secular nation in which anyone can practise whatever faith they want openly, without fear of government sanction. Accordingly (ignoring its controversial chair and the divisive debate that spawned it) the Ruddock Religious Review should be welcomed at face-value as an opportunity to re-examine and improve this part of our social compact.
That being said, whether “religious freedom” means freedom to religion or from religion depends on who you ask – and as with all things philosophical, this makes for heated debate, and increasingly rare common ground.
The opposing viewpoints clash in two fundamental respects. The first concerns the extent of religious freedom. For some, a free society includes the freedom to treat others in any way they wish, according to their views. In the name of equality and justice, our anti-discrimination laws prevent this type of ‘freedom’ for inherent characteristics like race and gender. But it’s hard to convince some people that this inherence should apply to sins like errant sexuality or blasphemy, like other faiths. To them, the only solution is a society that entrenches certain types of discrimination — and when you feel that you are not truly free unless certain people can’t buy from your store or marry like you can, we have a problem.
The second concerns freedom of speech. On one hand, religious views that do not directly cause harm should not be treated as hate speech. Free speech doesn’t mean a guaranteed platform, but a line is crossed when people are being prevented from using the platforms that are available to them. And no one should have unprovoked violence visited on them for their views. On the other hand, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from equally-free condemnation. Racism only means ostracism today because of counterspeech throughout history. The future will determine if religious views in an increasingly atheist society end up the same, for better or for worse.
All said and done, it will be interesting to see what conclusions the Ruddock Religious Review comes to — and how the Government of the day responds to preserve a society of freedom and equality.