Religious freedom: can the PM stay true to his word?

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Attorney General Christian Porter, centre, has announced he will move to protect churches via exemptions to anti-discrimination. But is this enough? Church critics, such as Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, insist religious freedom is a positive right – not an exemption. Photo: AAP, Sam Mooy

Much of the debate centred around religious freedom defines the issue in terms of whether or not religious organisations like schools should be exempt from anti-discrimination acts.  The assumption is that freedom of religion is just one among many other competing rights including freedom of expression and the freedom not to be unfairly discriminated against in relation to employment.

The American law professor Gerard Bradley who recently visited Australia as a guest of the Australian Catholic University’s PM Glynn Institute argues otherwise.  At a talk at the Melbourne campus of the ACU Bradley argues instead of subsuming religious freedom it should be treated as a distinct and irreducible good.

Religious freedom is a right, not an exception

Based on natural law and the inherently moral and spiritual truth evidenced by religious faith Bradley, as does Sydney’s Archbishop Fisher, argues religious freedom should be treated as a positive right essential to human flourishing.

While secular critics argue all citizens must abide by civil laws mandated by government those committed to Christianity and the teachings of the Church believe their duty to abide by God’s law is higher and more absolute.

To hold a religious belief goes to the very core of what it means to be a free person and to compromise or restrict such a belief threatens the very nature of what it means to live in a liberal and open society.

Freedom for all – except you

As noted by Professor Bradley the belief religious freedom is paramount runs against the prevailing secular ideology that treats all truths as subjective and relative to the individual.  Except, of course, with issues the cultural-left treats as beyond dispute like same-sex marriage and the right to undergo gender transition.

Based on the argument that the freedom to hold and express  religious beliefs is an inherent right and not simply a privilege granted by the state it’s clear that a number of consequences follow.

Christianity’s children: human rights

The first is that it is wrong to treat religious freedom as simply one freedom among many others.  As argued by Larry Siendetop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism Christianity and the New Testament are primarily responsible for the concept that each person has inalienable rights such as life and liberty.

The admonition  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” and the belief each person is made in the image of God underpins and informs the West’s political and legal systems.

Christianity explains why in Medieval England the cleric and jurist Henry de Bracton was able to argue “the king shall be under God and the law, for the law makes him king”.

Penalising doctors for exercising their conscience

Secondly, governments should always acknowledge and respect the right Christians have to remain true to their faith when designing and implementing any laws or requirements that contradict religious beliefs.

Christian doctors, nurses and health professionals should never be made to take part in practices like abortion and state sanctioned suicide.  Penalising doctors for refusing to recommend a patient who wants to have an abortion or commit suicide is also a grievous injury to their religious faith.

“Religious bodies like schools also have the right to employ only those who share their uniquely religious character”

While not directly involved, the reality is if a person facilitates such procedures he or she is  implicitly involved and morally culpable.  Religious bodies like schools also have the right to employ only those who share their uniquely religious character.

Not only because it is vital that all employed, both teaching and non-teaching staff, abide by the religious ethos and teachings of such schools; equally as important is a staff member acting as a good mentor and example to students.

True freedom: the right to public and private beliefs

Thirdly, the right to religious freedom involves the right to publicly express and enact such religious beliefs without being penalised or punished,

Contrary to secular critics who want to banish religion from the public square Professor Bradley argues religious freedom involves the right to enact and express such beliefs and teachings in public and in private life.

Scott Morrison says one thing …

Whether arguing against same-sex marriage, gender fluidity and transgenderism, abortion or euthanasia Christians both have a moral duty to make public the Church’s teachings as well as an inherent right to express their views without vilification and condemnation.

During the recent federal election campaign Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a letter to Christian Schools Australia, wrote “I believe there is no more fundamental right than the right to decide what you believe, or do not believe.  That means Australians of faith should be free to hold and practise that faith without fear or discrimination against them”.

But what will he do?

The Prime Minister also wrote “My government believes that religious institutions must be free to uphold and to teach the tenets of their faith.  Provided the teachings or practices of a religious institution  do not contravene criminal law, the government has no business meddling  with them”.  One hopes the Prime Minister remains true to his word.

Dr Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.