Real faith protection call

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Prof Iain Benson: Only strong religious freedom laws will protect believers from those “wanting to send religion to the wall”. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Prof Iain Benson: Only strong religious freedom laws will protect believers from those “wanting to send religion to the wall”. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Australia needs effective religious freedom laws but is unlikely to get them if they do not resist a movement seeking to “send religion to the wall” an academic has warned.

Professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia Iain Benson says that in omitting any reference to freedom of conscience, the draft commonwealth religious discrimination bill displays a failure to respect the nature of a free and democratic society where faith is recognised as a part of the fabric of private and public life.

“Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) [to which Australia is a signatory] speaks about the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the reason that is instituted or quasi-instituted into human rights is because of the foundational importance of both conscience and religion to society,” he said.

“This is an important point in Australia at the moment particularly in Victoria and NSW where [lawmakers] are not showing any real interest in protecting conscience of dissent, for example of doctors in relation to abortion.

“This new ‘effective referral language’ does not allow the proper approach to assent that conscience protections should allow.

“This happens because there is no real respect for diversity.

“People will use the language of diversity as we saw in the Israel Folau case but then they shut it down in practice.”

The current process towards religious discrimination legislation is preceeding with the “wrong set of presuppositions,” he said. “They’re not viewing religion and conscience as expansive prior conceptions,” he said.

Professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia Iain Benson. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia Iain Benson. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“They are viewing these things as exemptions and the people who cleverly, craftily and dishonestly leaked the Ruddock religion report last year in order to try and put pressure on politicians are people who are quite happy to see religion go to the wall.

“They need to be understood first of all and they need to be resisted.”

However a lack of understanding among ordinary Australians about what is happening means there is a lack of effective resistance to the movement which is evident in all Western countries and particularly in humanities departments of universities, Prof Benson said.

“It is a movement to what I call one-size-fits-all.

“This is the idea that everybody must agree on matters which are in fact highly contested.”

The Canadian-born professor believes Australia will soon see the sorts of problems encountered in his home country which this year saw the highly-publicised legal case of a father whose opposition to his child’s treatment to transition from a female to a male body was found to constitute family violence.

“In our period of history we’re increasingly trying to have it both ways that is, denying the idea of truth and yet still wanting objective reality such as justice but that’s a complete incoherence,” he said.

“You can’t deny truth and uphold the concept of justice, unless you believe in the idea that winning by might is right.

“It is a pernicious doctrine but it’s now the framework we’re left with after abandoning the tradition of natural law.”