Sydney Archbishop addresses NSW Parliament on Religious Freedom

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Considering religious freedom: Tania Mihailuk MLA, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Mark Latham MLC, Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian, Scott Farlow MLC, Robyn Preston MLA and Gabrielle Upton MLA gather after the parliamentary committee hearing.  Photo: Monica Doumit

With fellow Christian leaders, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP addressed state MPs to bat for religious freedom in New South Wales

Addressing a New South Wales parliamentary committee last Friday, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP defended religious freedom and called for loopholes allowing discrimination against Christians in NSW to be closed. Human rights are not a “zero sum game,” he said.

His comments came as he appeared before the Joint Select Committee on the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020.

Human rights are not a ‘zero sum game’

The private member’s bill garnered significant public interest, with close to 20,000 submissions made to the inquiry, the overwhelming majority – 13,200 – in favour of the bill.

Sydney University students stop to allow the Eucharistic procession to pass on 26 September, 2019. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

It is currently illegal in New South Wales to discriminate against a person on the basis of age, race, disability, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, Archbishop Fisher said.

it is not illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of religious belief

However, he told the MPs, it is not illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of religious belief or activity; the bill, moved by Mark Latham MLC, would remedy that imbalance by providing equal protections to people of faith.

Former Federal Labor leader the Hon Mark Latham current NSW MLC and defender of religious freedom PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

He said it was important that religious organisations be protected as well; unlike many of the other rights protected in anti-discrimination law, religion is unique in that it manifests in community with others.

The bill, moved by Mark Latham MLC, would remedy that imbalance

This is primarily through religious worship but also through the operation of “religion-inspired” schools and universities, hospitals and aged care facilities, charity stores and other social welfare agencies, he said.

“We’re saying that part of freedom of religion is the freedom to manifest your religion, that is clear in all the international instruments,” the archbishop said.  “Religion is not just something you have to keep inside your head and never express or manifest.

Important that religious organisations be protected

“People manifest it in things like the institutions and organisations they set up, schools, hospitals, welfare services, parishes and so on, and that will often include operations that include goods and services.”

“Religion is not just something you have to keep inside your head and never express or manifest.” Said Archbishop Fisher “People manifest it in things like the institutions and organisations they set up, schools, hospitals, welfare services, parishes and so on, and that will often include operations that include goods and services.” Pictured is St Paul of the Cross Primary School. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Appearing alongside Archbishop Fisher was the Primate of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand, His Eminence Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian.

An unprecedented level of collaboration between the Catholic and Orthodox churches saw a joint submission made to the Committee by the Catholic Bishops of New South Wales and the Bishops of the Australasian-Middle East Christian Apostolic Churches.

Collaboration between Catholic and Orthodox churches

Mainstream narratives often forget and misunderstand the complex demographic of LGBTQI people of faith in Australia – including LGBTQI Catholics- who may suffer immensely both from discrimination of their sexuality as well as ridicule of their deep-seated and intimate religious faith if not protected PHOTO: NewWaysMinistry

Critics of the bill also spoke at the two-day hearing, including the director of the Buddhist Council of NSW, Bhante Akāliko Bhikkhu, who said it would increase discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Archbishop said that the aim was the reconciling of supposedly conflicting rights.

Rather than insisting on a “winner takes all” approach to human rights that viewed protection of one right as necessitating the diminishment of another, we should seek to protect all of them, he said.

LGBTI Catholics, for example, were as concerned about their religious freedom as non-LGBTI Catholics

Meanwhile, LGBTI Catholics, for example, were as concerned about their religious freedom as non-LGBTI Catholics and he did not want to see it undermined, he said.

Legislating for religious freedom was about “making space” for each other and included the need to allow people to express a religious belief outside the workplace without the threat of losing their job or facing other discriminatory treatment.

“Employers should not regard themselves as owning the souls of employees”

Employers should not regard themselves as owning the souls of employees, as if they are free to control their minds and their speech in every part of life,” Archbishop Fisher told MPs, although a person’s life outside of a religious-based workplace did have a bearing in some situations, for example the leader of a faith community or a school principal was expected to live in a way that did not undermine their authentic witness to those communities.

The protection of Catholic institutions assisted minority faith groups as well

Premier Gladys Berejiklian joins Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP last December at the blessing of the Khachkar presented to the Archdiocese of Sydney by the Armenian Church Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Archbishop Najarian echoed Archbishop Fisher’s words and told the committee that it was important to the Armenian Orthodox community that Catholic institutions were given the legal right to operate in accordance with their beliefs.

As a small proportion of the population in New South Wales, he explained, the community did not have the same presence in terms of schools, hospitals and aged care facilities as the Catholic Church.

Many Armenians, he said, chose Catholic institutions for education and health care, making it clear to the Committee that the protection of Catholic institutions assisted minority faith groups as well. The Committee is due to provide its final report by March 2021.