September 19, 2018

Calls for Religious Discrimination Act

PHOTO: Unsplash/Iv Horton

Calls for new legislation to protect people of faith are rapidly escalating across the country.

Parliamentarians, a former Human Rights Commissioner and Islamic leaders have all spoken out publicly to back a speech by Federal Minister for Social Services, Dan Tehan, calling for a Religious Discrimination Act.

In his St Thomas More Lecture delivered in Canberra last month – but the text of which has only just been made public – Mr Tehan expressed concern about “the creeping encroachment from the state on religious belief” and “the use of political correctness to marginalise and silence the religious perspective”.

He said the only way to address it was by the introduction of a new Religious Discrimination Act that would do two things—offer protection against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity, and ensure nationally that legislation, such as state-based anti-discrimination legislation, that limit the right to freedom of religion, are no more restrictive than required.

Religion is often protected by way of exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, a situation that placed religious freedom in a vulnerable position, Mr Tehan said.

Following the publication of his speech, other parliamentarians have backed him along with former Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who told The Guardian Australia, that the absence of a Religious Discrimination Act was the “obvious gap” in Australia’s anti-discrimination architecture, but cautioned that it should be legislated carefully so as not to “license people imposing religion or the marginalisation of others.”

Chair of the Expert Panel into Religious Freedom, Phillip Ruddock. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Liberal Senator James Paterson also supported the introduction of a Religious Discrimination Act along with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, who warned that religious freedom is being weakened in Australian society.

Senator Paterson said the laws were needed to provide reassurance to people of faith that they will be protected, even if they express a view in favour of traditional marriage.

“I think the trend is clear that people who hold views like that are going to be increasingly marginalised and potentially even punished for holding their genuinely-held faithful views, and I don’t want that to be the case,” he said.

Senator Paterson, an agnostic libertarian and member of the Senate Committee that inquired into the initial draft of the same-sex marriage legislation, said that thousands of Australians were afraid of being isolated in public debate and that there would be no place for them in the future.

Islamic Federation president Rateb Jneid said freedom of religion was a “basic human right” and while without seeing details of  the proposed act, there was in-principle support for legislative protection for religious freedom.

The escalating calls for religious protections comes ahead of the release of a key review into religious freedoms led by former Liberal attorney-general Philip Ruddock. The review, which was inundated with thousands of submissions, came after same-sex marriage legislation was passed last year without any meaningful protections for religious freedom.

Mr Tehan and Senator Paterson spoke of the current clash between religious freedom and the law is the debate over the Catholic Church’s seal of confession.

One of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was that the seal of confession be broken in confessions involving child abuse.

“This has legal and theological implications,” Mr Tehan said. “One of the important questions to be dealt with, relates to what any changes will mean for priests who have done no wrong and who have sworn to God to adhere to the seal of confession when it was clearly legal to do so.

“This is an issue that must be worked through with the Church.”

Senator Paterson commented on the futility of changing the law. “I am worried that if we force priests to break their seal of confession that they will refuse to do so, and ultimately all we’ll end up doing is sending priests to jail simply for upholding their vows,” he said.

Mr Tehan and Senator Paterson also addressed recent cases where people of faith have been punished for publically expressing their beliefs.

The boycott of Coopers Brewery for sponsoring a debate on same-sex marriage, and the backlash against footballer Israel Folau after posting on Instagram about the biblical view on homosexuality were cited as examples of people of faith being hounded out of the public square.

“In a liberal democracy, people must have the freedom to air unpopular views, including those informed by faith, and those views must be open to challenge,” Mr Tehan said.

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