Submission to Ruddock panel on religious freedom

On St Valentine’s Day Fr Ralph Bowles and I made a submission to the Ruddock Panel inquiring into religious freedom in Australia (to download click here).

Our submission was that religious belief has too much, and too little, protection and that because the legislation is currently entirely at a state level, with no uniformity, it leads to a potential for forum shopping and the matter being determined by the lowest common denominator.

So our submission called for the abolition of all state blasphemy laws, as well as instituting a commonwealth law, over-riding state law, to protect the practice and expression of religious belief by lay and ordained members of a religion.

Religious freedom is the parent of the universal right to free speech, as it precedes it in time. It is similar to, but different from, normal free speech. Free speech is something that pertains to the individual, and it may be wholly novel, arising from no tradition or agreed set of facts, while religious belief derives from a tradition and a group, and relates to the moral and spiritual essence of the believer.

So the bar for interference with religious speech and action is in some ways higher than for simple free speech. As it is a group activity, it is also necessary that the law protect the ability of that group to act coherently, which means in issues like employment they need to be able to choose from the pool of people who share their beliefs.

When it comes to same sex marriage, there is a false argument that because something is legal it must be approved of. Religions go beyond what is legal. Laws say what can be, not necessarily what should be. The law can licence de facto relationships, but a church can say they are wrong, without there being any conflict.

So should an objecting Christian be able to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding? Probably not, as it is a product. Should other objecting Christians be able to refuse to participate in a gay wedding socially, or professionally? Unless we believe in slavery, yes.

Should the right to religious freedom only belong to ordained clergy? Definitely no.

Our recommendations were:

  1. The Commonwealth government legislate to ensure that religious freedom is protected uniformly across Australia. This could be done by uniform legislation after agreement between the states, or using the Foreign Affairs power and the international human rights instruments that Australia has ratified.
  2. That complaints of religious vilification or discrimination should not be heard by a non-judicial tribunal and must be commenced in a court.
  3. All blasphemy laws should be repealed so that any person can criticise any organisation, or person, on the basis of their theology, ethics and morality, or their practice. This includes repealing or overriding the inclusion of religion in various state discrimination acts as well as in the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.
  4. It should be recognised as a right that religious institutions can teach and practice in line with their theology in the widest range of cases, but certainly in the case of sexual relations.
  5. Religious institutions should be able to hire employees who align with their practices and beliefs, and reject those who don’t, as a consequence of, and in furtherance of, their right to religious freedom.
  6. Religious adherents, not just clergy, should be able to express opinions on the basis of their understanding of the theology, ethics and morality of their chosen religion, without penalty.
  7. All citizens, whether religious or not, should be guaranteed the right to withhold their commercial services on whatever basis they choose. This should not extend to the provision of products.

The full report can be downloaded by clicking here.