Solidarity for bishops in Tasmania case

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In last week’s column, I wrote about the anti-discrimination case against Archbishop Julian Porteous and the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

It is a frightening imposition on the basic freedoms of religion and conscience, and one we should take seriously.

But even amid these trials, there are signs of goodness emerging, and I would like to use this column to acknowledge them.

For example, the Australian Christian Lobby has been vocal in support of the Church in this particular case.

When the complaint was first lodged, ACL president Lyle Shelton wrote: “It is so important we do not leave people alone on the battlefield.” This is an example of not just support, but solidarity, and a willingness to enter into the fight for the truth of marriage and the freedom to express it alongside the Catholic Church.

The solidarity continued after it was announced the complaint would proceed to the next stage. The ACL asked its followers to read and share the Don’t Mess With Marriage booklet via email and social media.

Given that the anti-discrimination complaint is partly over the distribution of the booklet, the ACL is standing alongside the Church and putting some skin in the game.

The ACL is showing its willingness to be prosecuted as well.

Then there was the online petition circulated by the Australian Family Association which, at the time of writing, had received almost 11,000 signatures.

People are often reluctant to speak publicly about this issue, and so these names likely represent many, many more who support our bishops.

In Federal politics Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz proposed a motion which would have seen the Senate support not the content of the pastoral letter, but the right of our bishops to distribute it. The motion was narrowly defeated, but that a number of senators were willing to put their name to it is encouraging.

And in state politics, NSW Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet gave a rousing private member’s statement defending the rights of our bishops to teach in Catholic schools.

And, of course, there was our own Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, who confirmed that he intends to continue to speak up for Christian beliefs, giving courage to all of us who are blessed with his courageous leadership to do the same.

It’s not only those who uphold the natural definition of marriage who are speaking up in support of our bishops.

Then last week Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, in a parliamentary speech in which he expressed his opposition to the current definition of marriage and his intention to vote to redefine it in the upcoming national plebiscite, also said that his government would consider the “adequacy and appropriateness” of Tasmanian anti-discrimination laws to ensure free speech is protected.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is himself an advocate for marriage redefinition, penned a piece for the Australian newspaper criticising the broad nature of the Tasmanian anti-discrimination law.

He said it restricts free speech by allowing a person to be prosecuted for the low bar of offending, insulting, ridiculing or humiliating a person.

He further commented that even if a court or tribunal was to interpret these provisions narrowly so to give the freedom of speech the broadest possible scope, the existence of the law itself causes enough damage because it can instil fear of prosecution in a person so that they will self-censor.

[As an aside, Tim Wilson’s solution to this evinces a misunderstanding about the reason for the Church’s involvement in this discussion. He wrote that religious communities should engage in this debate by “discussing the model to protect their rights” instead of “simple opposition”, which he says is equivalent to the suppression of freedoms about which we are concerned. But this presumes that the Church is only in favour of the current definition of marriage on religious grounds, and is concerned primarily about self-preservation. This is not the case. The Church seeks to defend the current definition of marriage because she believes that it is what is best for human flourishing and for the protection of our most vulnerable, especially our children. To engage in this debate by focusing solely on protection of freedoms for people of faith would be the equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.]

The reason I have highlighted all of these statements of support is not to try to bolster our “side” of the marriage debate, but rather to remind us all that we have no need of despair.

Even in the unprecedented situation of an entire Bishops’ Conference being prosecuted, there are signs of hope. These examples illustrate that a healthy debate on the meaning of marriage and the future of our Australian society is possible.

They show us that people can fundamentally disagree with each other on an issue and simultaneously defend the right of the other to put their case to the public. This is more than tolerance of the other, which is hardly a virtuous form of debate. It is solidarity with the other, even the person with whom you passionately disagree.