How the odd debate of religious freedom will play in the election campaign

The oddest debate of 2018 was about religious freedom. For most of the year, it was a non-debate as the Ruddock Panel’s report into Religious Freedom was suppressed. After key parts were leaked, there was a fiery debate centred on schools. After an acrimonious debate in Parliament, headmasters’ letters and student protests, the government sent these Ruddock ideas off to the Australian Law Reform Commission. But there was more to Ruddock than that.

“The Panel correctly recognised that religion is not adequately protected by law.” – Alex Deagon

Now that some of the dust has settled, it’s time for Eternity to point to some of the more interesting response to Ruddock.

Alex Deagon, who lectures in law at Queensland University of Technology, finds some of the less publicised aspects of Ruddock the most interesting:

After noting the schools issue, his paper for Asia and the Pacific Policy Society summarises some positives: “Another interesting recommendation from the Panel is the creation of a Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Act. This would ‘render it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity’, including non-belief, with appropriate exemptions for religious bodies.

“The Panel correctly recognised that religion is not adequately protected by law at the Commonwealth level, and this is a sensible proposal which would bring Commonwealth protection for religion in line with protection for race (Racial Discrimination Act) and sex (Sex Discrimination Act).

“However, the Panel felt the appointment of a specific Religious Freedom Commissioner to sit within the Human Rights Commission was not necessary, as this could be covered by the remits of existing commissioners.

“The government response accepted this recommendation in principle but went further in some respects. First, the government explicitly stated the Religious Discrimination Act would not contain any equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as this would, in effect, establish a blasphemy law, contrary to the tenor and recommendations of the Panel Report that blasphemy laws should be repealed to protect and promote freedom of speech and religion.

“Second, the government stated the specific statutory role of ‘Freedom of Religion Commissioner’ would be established ‘to strengthen the protection of freedom of religion in Australia’.

“Both these proposals are beneficial, and the appointment of the Commissioner will be particularly significant. Qualifications, expertise, and political and religious inclinations of the appointed person are important factors and could have considerable impact on the extent to which the Commissioner protects religious freedom.

“Legal protections are important, but they only take us so far.” – Alex Deagon

“Finally, the Panel made a number of recommendations to the effect that the Commonwealth and the Human Rights Commission should support religious engagement, education, understanding and dialogue. The government accepted these recommendations and indicated that this would be led by the new Freedom of Religion Commissioner.”

Deagon then makes a key point: “Despite the relative lack of publicity this has received, it could be one of the most important outcomes of the Ruddock Review. One reason for growing polarisation and controversy in our diverse democracy is an increase in secularisation and a lack of religious literacy in the nation.

“Legal protections are important, but they only take us so far, and address symptoms rather than the cause. Education, engagement and dialogue accompanied with a desire for goodwill between people can defuse much of the tension which produces legal disputes. Mutual understanding, learning from one another, and accommodating our religious and other differences, can all help us to flourish as a democratic community with freedom for all.”

A key aspect of the Ruddock and Schools debate – drawing the distinction between schools and churches – was raised by David Hastie from Alphacrucis College in Eternity: “There is a broad and noisy public square in front of our churches: our schools.

“We have invited Australians to gather in this place, and they have gathered willingly, in great numbers: Australia now has the fifth highest non-government schooling sector proportion in the world. Tony George, Head of The Kings School, observes that Christian schools effectively have asked the community ‘to belong, and then believe.’ I would observe that this is pretty much the opposite business model of our churches: believe and then belong.

“That millions have found belonging in a profound way is clear. Some already did believe, and many find new belief. Many still, however, are quite content to mill about the open square and not enter the church door. And yet they remain in the warm light of its portico.”

As Hastie puts it, in post-Christendom “the huge Australian Christian schooling sector now unintentionally finds itself betwixt the Church and society at large, in a mediating space with no instruction manual.”

Hastie  argues that schools should be able to hire “ethos-aligned” staff , and that if “the open arms and reckless grace of Christ walks among the big open square that is our schools, Christian schooling will not only survive the censor’s knife; it will flourish. For when grace has thrived in community throughout history, it has been politically irrefutable, and its social benefits irresistible. An explosion of delight will bring ultimate and enduring life to Christian schools, if we invite the population to first belong, to join a flourishing community in a great banquet of high-quality education and interconnection. In so doing we commend the Christian gospel, and people can make up their own minds. ”

“An explosion of delight will bring ultimate and enduring life to Christian schools.” – David Hastie

The “open arms and wild and reckless grace of Christ” phrase is hurled back at Hastie in a riposte posted on the ABC Religion and ethics site from Murdoch University academic Mark Jennings. He argues, from a progressive Christian position, that surely one of the best ways for Christian schools to embody the “open arms and reckless grace of Christ” is by advocating less discrimination.

“How better to demonstrate to the LGBTIQ students, staff and parents in the noisy public square of Christian education that they are embraced and included?”

The Jennings position assumes there is no tension between a Christian ethos and a radical inclusion. But Hastie is making the point that schools have adopted to being fully welcoming while maintaining their religious teaching (and not all schools teach alike.)

It is precisely this balance that ideally will be sought in the run-up to the election. That ideal will be hard to reach as the political parties jostle for position. A long analysis by Paul Kelly in The Australian is another key document.

“The upshot is that religious schools in Australia are threatened in the discharge of their mission and LGBTIQ students promised by Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten to have guaranteed legal protections are still denied,” Kelly writes. “The situation is a shambles. This ludicrous stalemate has no precedent in our history.

“This ludicrous stalemate has no precedent in our history.” – Paul Kelly

“It exposes the paralysis, poison and lack of goodwill in our politics. The year should not have ended this way. Father Frank Brennan, a member of the Ruddock review into religious freedom, called in on Wednesday to try to mediate between Liberals and Labor, left the building nauseated. ‘There was no prospect of reasoned dialogue to reach an agreement,’ he told Inquirer.”

Reading the 200-page ALP Policy document reveals little mention of religious freedom. There is a strong commitment for LGBT people to live free of vilification at clause 196.

“Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”

However, clause 199 of the draft platform reads: “Labor will not alter the existing Section 47 of the Marriage Act which ensures that nothing in the Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.”

How the tensions between the major parties’ policies opposing discrimination against LGBT people while giving space to religious freedom are resolved will emerge during what will be a long de facto election campaign from early in the new year.

As Alex Deagon notes in his piece, giving religious freedom an act alongside the Race Discrimination Act (but without its restrictions on free speech) and the Sex Discrimination Act is a “sensible solution” that is a part of Ruddock worth preserving.

But Perth pastor-blogger Stephen MacAlpine fears there is no middle ground. “The reason that we are at such an impasse in Australia over religious freedom/ discrimination is simple:  It’s a tale of two gospels.  Competing views about good news. And as such, with so much at stake, there can be no backdown and no middle ground.

“That the two discriminations cannot co-exist is clear.” – Stephen MacAlpine

“Not that I would not like there to be middle ground. Against all my hopes I would wish to see an Australia where gay people were not discriminated against and where religious freedom to teach and promulgate a faith position that holds to a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) sexual ethic is not under threat.

“But let’s be clear, it’s not about discrimination versus religious freedom, it’s about which form of discrimination will win the day.  Or to put a positive spin on it, which gospel will win out.

“Progressive activists need to claim the word ‘discrimination’ for this cause, because to allow religious people to also claim it would be to cede the language battle. And all of our battles in this post-truth age are centred around language. And in the current match-up religious freedom is a goal down in the first minute of play because it’s had the ‘discrimination’ word wrested from its control.

“That the two discriminations cannot co-exist is clear, despite what the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader wish to assure us.”

While Deagon suggests a balance between freedoms is at least theoretically possible, MacAlpine in projecting forward suggests the most likely outcome is an unsympathetic Shorten government.

This is a debate that has aroused a lot of passion in the community, with mutual fear and incomprehension among the community groups most affected. For Christians, these words may help in the next few months: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4: 5-7)




Related Reading

Related stories from around the web

Mark Jennings replies to Hastie

ABC Religion and Ethics

Eternity News is not responsible for the content on other websites