Julian Leeser: Protections for all of us

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A bridge too far – apparently: Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, left, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison face-off in the House of Representatives in Canberra. Legislation protecting Christians and Christian-missioned organisations went down in a screaming heap in the federal parliament last week. Both major political parties were responsible. Photo: Lucas coch

A supporter of the proposed Religious Discrimination laws, Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser, explains his position

Too often the only thing people know about the Christian faith is what they learnt before they left primary school and what they see in the news headlines. At the heart of this is the growing hostility, at first in radical circles but increasingly in broader circles, to the holistic view that Christians have of marriage, life and family. Properly presented, Christian teachings are not threatening, but they are at odds with the zeitgeist. Today those teachings are attacked by people who have a different view, some of whom have hostility to organised religion and Christianity in particular.

The diminished public standing of the church is not a problem created entirely by its own detractors. Some of the decline in the standing of the church as an organised religion is self-inflicted. Failures of leadership and moral corruption have undermined the standing of faith communities and faith leaders. Among ordinary churchgoers, people of faith have at times been unwelcoming and usurped God’s role as judge by failing to take a pastoral approach to those who differ or find themselves falling short of the standards the church encourages. But, despite being sorely tested, the church has always had countless good leaders and faithful people whose lives demonstrate extraordinary virtue, which contributes immeasurably to the common good. The central tenets of Christian faith—love for your neighbour, practices of forgiveness and confession, and a commitment to holiness coupled with a commitment to grace—have enriched the lives not only of faith filled people but of every one of us.

Since European settlement, Christian values have been reflected in our laws, even if not explicitly stated. Yet over the years these values have been undermined. But today, too, Christians are increasingly suffering discrimination.

In a case brought by the Human Rights Law Alliance in 2020, a committed Christian was banned from a Canberra cafe for reading the Bible and praying with her friend who has autism. Staff at the cafe saw the two ladies reading the Bible and praying and assumed that the woman with autism was being taken advantage of. When the two women went up to pay, the manager accused the first woman of brainwashing, and banned her from the cafe.

In another case, a Christian GP displayed a notice in her practice advising patients that she didn’t consult on contraception, assisted reproductive technology or the termination of life. When her notice went viral on social media, the public furore was intense. Two activists lodged complaints to the medical board about her practice, challenging her professional registration. The practice was embroiled in a media firestorm.

When I brought faith leaders in my community together about two years ago, I heard things that I thought I would never hear in the Australia in which I was raised. I was told by Christians about being worried about quoting the Bible and sharing Jesus’s teachings, about what they can teach in their schools, about who they can employ, about the use of discrimination law as a weapon and about a deep-seated media bias against Christians.
Then there’s the legislative attack on Christians. Whatever the Labor Party may say to faith communities, my message to faith leaders is not to listen to what Labor says but to look at what Labor does in government.

One only needs to look at the Andrews Labor government in Victoria to see the way in which, at every turn, the Andrews Labor government has sought to restrict the space in which people of faith are able to exercise their freedom of religion, from the attacks on the seal of the confessional and multiple attacks on the exercise of religious conscience, to the attack on the right to gather to protect human life and the attack on the right to provide preference in employment, or even the attack on the right to pray.

All of these rights have been under a full-scale assault by the Victorian Labor government and provide the best insight into what a federal Labor government might do. All of these factors contribute to the need for this bill.

I want to acknowledge the Attorney-General’s very thorough consultations on this bill. It’s hard to imagine a bill that has been the subject of more community input, from all points of view. No-one has got everything they wanted, but everyone has had their opportunity to be heard.

A Christian GP displayed a notice in her practice advising patients that she didn’t consult on contraception … [or abortion] … Two activists lodged complaints to the medical board about her practice, challenging her professional registration.”

I know others have spoken about amending the Sex Discrimination Act. Those sensitive matters will be properly and soberly considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission, and, save for government amendments to this bill, the appropriate time to deal with them is after the ALRC process has concluded. They too deserve the same level of extensive consultation and input that this bill has had.

The discussion about religious freedom is essentially about how we can live together with difference and create a truly pluralistic society, and how we can respect people of faith and of no faith. In the same way we protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their sex, race, age or disability, we should also protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their faith.

Religion is, however, different to other protected attributes in two ways. First, religion is about more than just identity. The nature of being male, old, black or disabled may mean that you have certain experiences in common with others who share that attribute, but they’re derived from a state of being. However, the nature of being a person of faith is different because religion provides a moral and ethical framework ordained by God, or whatever supreme being a person might believe in, and a series of related practices by which they should live.

These help guide people on not only their identity but the meaning of their life. To the genuine believer, religious doctrines, practices or commands are not suggestions. When a Hindu doesn’t eat beef, it’s not like vegetarians choosing to be vegetarian because they don’t like meat. They are not eating beef because they believe that the cow is a sacred animal.

Second, religion is different to other protected attributes because it’s inherently communal. Unlike other protected attributes, religion often requires practices to be done in concert with other people for the actions to be religious.

Therefore, unlike other protected attributes, religion doesn’t just require the protection of the individual believer but the religious institution, be it a church or an organisation established by people from a religious community.

It may be for a purpose of education, social welfare, health or aged care, but it is a way in which a group of believers come together to put their beliefs into action.

Finally, I want to observe that this bill has had the unintended benefit of bringing faith leaders together—this has occurred in many cases for the first time—to work in common cause to protect people of faith from discrimination and to allow faith based organisations, in the words of the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, to ‘embody and pursue their religious mission’. This has created deeper relationships across faith communities and helped faith leaders to better understand the particular challenges each face. The strengthening of these relationships can only lead to a stronger and more harmonious Australia.

Last year, faith leaders representing a wide range of Christian denominations, including Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, evangelical and Maronite churches, as well as Muslim and Jewish communities, penned a letter about the Religious Discrimination Bill, setting out their views.

In it the leaders noted that, while there were a range of provisions they would have liked to have seen included in the bill, including greater protections for conscience and protections against employer codes of conduct, ‘We welcome this bill because it will protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs and will allow faith based organisations to act in accordance with their doctrines, tenets and beliefs without this being disallowed as religious discrimination.’

This bill doesn’t give everyone everything they want, but it’s a balanced and reasonable compromise. I commend it to the House.

Julian Leeser is a Liberal MP who is the Member for Berowra.

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