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Religious freedom panel gets a diverse response

We sift through thousands of submissions to see what Australia is calling for

A first batch of submissions to the Federal Government’s Religious Freedom panel chaired by Phillip Ruddock have been made public – and it reveals a vast diverse range of opinion.

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On the one hand, submissions are included which want to keep religion as an activity for consenting adults only. Of the more than 16,000 submissions, the majority are from individuals such as David Brookman. Like many other submissions, Brookman wants religious bodies to be taxed. He also suggests that “all Gazetted public holidays based on religion be removed and replaced with holidays for the Summer and Winter Solstice” and “cessation of the marketing of all religions in schools for children below the age of 15.”

Bird’s submission is one of the heavyweight ones made public by the Expert Panel.

Retired Baptist minister Ian Carmichael wants to make sure Christians’ speech avoids offending others: “I believe it is of deep importance not to remove protections from specified groups of people, or people with specific, and lawfully unexceptionable, attributes, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes.” Like a lot of the submissions, this is meant to counter what the writer thinks the ‘other side’ would say.

And the cases of Hobart Presbyterian minister Campbell Markham, street preacher David Gee, and Tasmania’s Catholic Bishop, Julian Porteous – all hauled before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner for defending traditional views of marriage – do get a run in the submissions.

For example, Michael Bird, a lecturer at Ridley College captures the mischief making aspect of the Porteous case. “The complaint was based on the absurd proposition that messing with marriage meant messing with children and ‘messing’ was a euphemism for sexual activity. In other words, it was alleged that Bishop Porteous himself was alleging that all LGBTIQ+ persons were paedophiles.”

Bird’s submission is one of the heavyweight ones made public by the Expert Panel. He brings out the fundamental point that religious freedom is essential for a diverse society. “When it comes to religion, confident pluralism will not allow us to take punitive actions against religious groups with beliefs that we do not care for, whether that is the Church of Scientology, Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Australian Baptists. Any attempt by an over-reaching state to create social homogeneity by compelling religious groups into ‘sameness’ or punishing religious groups for their dissent or difference from public policy rests on a deliberate undermining of religious liberty. Australian MP Tim Wilson writes: ‘A free society does not seek to homogenise belief or conscience but instead, affirms diversity and advocates for tolerance and mutual respect.’”

This support of diversity is a key characteristic of the bulkier submissions from Christian organisations. Two of the submissions made public by conservative Christian groups can be seen to manifest that diversity. The Australian Christian Lobby and Human Rights Alliance joint submission takes  an expansive view of what religious freedom includes. While “cakes for gay weddings” are not mentioned absolutely specifically (but food supply for weddings is), the ACL states “businesses must be free to operate in accordance with [their] beliefs.”

In contrast, the submission by the umbrella group Freedom for Faith, written by Sydney University law Professor Patrick Parkinson, does not mention gay wedding cakes or make a case for businesses to refuse service to LGBTIQ people.

Support of diversity is a key characteristic of the bulkier submissions from Christian organisations.

Neil Foster, Associate Professor of law at Newcastle University (who runs the law and religion Australian blog) submitted that “individuals and groups not be required to express their artistic support for a model of marriage inconsistent with their deeply held religious convictions.” Eternity takes this as lawyerly code for “gay wedding cakes”.

Notre Dame’s Associate Dean in their Sydney law school, Professor Keith Thompson, agrees and raises a couple of “red flag” cases. He writes of religious freedom: “I do not say it should always trump other human rights … However, it does have to be taken into account in every case where it arises and it should not be sacrificed because of any government agenda to affirm the rights of another minority. If properly crafted, I believe that the law should have protected the right of the Brethren to decline the hire of their convention centre to Cobaw Community Health Services when they learned that group would be teaching values contrary to their own.  Similarly, a bakery which publicised its Christian values should not be required by law to bake a cake that offended those values, as in Northern Ireland. Similarly with photographers, florists and other providers of services where the religious values of those providers were public and clear.”

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference submission focuses on protecting the rights of the church, use of church property and conscientious objectors such as doctors. They steer clear of the issue of exemptions for ordinary businesses.

Religious exemption clauses in anti-discrimination laws should be wound back according to the submission by the Equality campaign. It makes the point that the marriage vote last year was about more than the narrow issue of marriage. “We submit that prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender identity or intersex status, even when done so on the basis of religious belief, is a reasonable and proportionate limitation on religious freedom that is necessary to achieve fairness and equality for LGBTI people. Indeed, this is the moral and political lesson that can be drawn from the results of last year’s Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey and the subsequent debate over marriage equality in Parliament.” They argue that the amendments introduced by conservative MPs during the marriage debate should be disregarded because of the postal survey result.

The CSA/Adventist submission says that schools should have freedom to choose their students.

However a joint submission by Adventist schools and Christian Schools Australia (CSA) argues that employment exemptions to anti-discrimination rules be maintained and strengthened. “If freedom of religion is to remain a legitimate hallmark of Australian education then the rights of school communities to operate in accordance with religious beliefs must be upheld.”

“This must include the right to choose all staff based on their belief in, and adherence to the beliefs, tenets and doctrines of the religion concerned.”

The CSA/Adventist submission says that schools should have freedom to choose their students. “Faith communities, including Christian schools, must be able to take action that separates individuals from that community when their actions undermine the community,” they said.

“While not a preferred outcome this option remains a necessary response to situations determined by a community to be a threat to that community.”

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