Freedom divide deepens

Reading Time: 5 minutes
MPs may not be against the concept of protection for religious rights but they seem concerned proposed law could see LGBTQI students and teachers suffer at the expense of religious institutions. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
MPs may not be against the concept of protection for religious rights but they seem concerned, proposed laws could see LGBTQI students and teachers suffer at the expense of religious institutions. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

A second week of public hearings on the Morrison Government’s Religious Freedom Bill has seen Church representatives face increasingly sharp questions about Catholic schools’ treatment of LGBT teachers and students.

Mark Edwards OMI, the Bishop of Wagga Wagga, was joined at the 20 January public hearing of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee by Sally Egan from the National Catholic Education Commission, Dallas McInerney from Catholic Schools NSW and Professor of Law Roque Reynolds, from the Australian Catholic University.

Labor Senator Louise Pratt and Greens Senator Janet Rice interrogated the Catholic representatives about their position on two submissions, from Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry and Catholics for Renewal, both of which allege the Religious Freedom Bill will discriminate against LGBT Catholics.

“Bishop Edwards struggled with the barrage of questions, ultimately concluding that ‘It’s freedom for all of us, as Catholics, to have freedom of association with people who believe …’”

The Bill will “fail to protect the moral equality of such individuals … for the sake of protecting institutional rather than individual rights”, Catholics for Renewal’s submission stated, adding that the same-sex marriage plebiscite “discredited all claims by religious leaders to be speaking on behalf of the individuals composing their congregations”.

“Do you talk to gay Catholics about their issues?” Pratt asked; Rice followed up with a number of questions about whether the representatives were “aware of engaging with any LGBTIQA+ Catholics in your consultation”.

McInerney replied that the church does not exclude anyone from its considerations, “intentionally or otherwise”, and is not “requiring self-declaration before we have a conversation”.

Court room with Gavel
Mark Edwards OMI, the Bishop of Wagga Wagga, was joined by other Catholics at the 20 January public hearing of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

Drawing on the Catholics for Renewal submission, Rice said the Religious Freedom Bill would protect religious hierarchies at the expense of individuals who wish to make up their own mind about matters of religious faith, morals and doctrine. Under the proposed legislation it is “the hierarchy that makes that decision rather than an individual Catholic who has reconciled their faith and their gender identity or their sexuality,” Rice said.

Bishop Edwards struggled with the barrage of questions, ultimately concluding that “It’s freedom for all of us, as Catholics, to have freedom of association with people who believe …”

“But they [LGBT Catholics] believe!” Rice interjected.

“It’s our intention in Catholic schools to employ teachers of Catholic faith or those who adhere to Christian values.”

“… in the same way that we do. They don’t have to associate with me or with other Bishops,” Bishop Edwards said.

Pratt, who repeatedly interjected and interrupted other Senators during the hearing, asked Bishop Edwards whether statements in the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference document Don’t Mess With Marriage would constitute protected doctrinal statements or vilification.

“One thing we’ve learnt is that that negative title was not helpful, and we wouldn’t express ourselves that way again,” Bishop Edwards conceded. “But should you be allowed to?” Pratt asked.

A parishioner from Bellerive Lindisfarne parish in Hobart holds a copy of the ACBC’s Don’t Mess With Marriage booklet.

The Catholic representatives did not enjoy a reprieve from Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, who joined Rice and Pratt by asking, “are teachers who are same-sex attracted in your schools removed from their employment, to your knowledge?”

“No, not at all. It’s our intention in Catholic schools to employ teachers of Catholic faith or those who adhere to Christian values,” Egan said. She and Bishop Edwards added that Catholic schools employ gay teachers who teach in accordance with the ethos of the Church, and that gay students should not be removed.

Students who “come out” at Catholic schools are treated with an “inclusive posture”, McInerney said.

“That’s right, and that’s one of the aspects of freedom of religion — that is, there are things that other people do in their faiths that are not the same as what we do in our faith.”

“[W]e do not seek to weaponise someone’s personal circumstances in our own settings—not at all. It’s not our policy,” he added.

“[A]lthough you might have very good and progressive policy in this space, others may not,” Bragg said.

“That’s right, and that’s one of the aspects of freedom of religion — that is, there are things that other people do in their faiths that are not the same as what we do in our faith,” Professor Reynolds replied.

Bishop Mark Edwards will lead Wagga diocese. PHOTO: ACBC

During the last two weeks of inquiries into the proposed legislation, questioning has been dominated by the argument—explicit or implicit —that protecting the right to religious freedom will come at the expense of LGBT people by legalising what would otherwise be anti-LGBT discrimination.

After years of redrafting and the elimination of the most controversial provisions of the Bill, such as the so-called “Folau clause”, expert opinion remains bitterly divided on whether any protection of religious freedom is permissible in contemporary Australia.

Legal experts are also at odds over whether the bill conforms with Australia’s obligations under International Human Rights Law to protect religious freedom.

“After years of redrafting and the elimination of the most controversial provisions of the Bill, such as the so-called “Folau clause”, expert opinion remains bitterly divided on whether any protection of religious freedom is permissible in contemporary Australia.”

The hearings saw a sharp divide between senior lawyers and academics supportive of the Bill, and those critical of it, as to whether it is “orthodox” anti-discrimination legislation or poorly-drafted, unconstitutional, and likely to end up in the High Court.

Public hearings from both the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee and Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights have now concluded, and both committees are due to report back on 4 February.

Further divisions over the bill are likely, with the two committees unlikely to both advise the legislation be passed by Parliament.

Related