Sydney's westies rally for religious freedom

While LGBTIQ say they fear new laws

In one of the sacred sites of Australian politics, Bowman Hall in Blacktown (where Gough Whitlam kicked off his “It’s Time” campaign that saw radical change come to Australia in 1972), a rally for religious freedom aimed to catch another political wave.

The “Free2BMe” rally last night clothed the theory that Sydney’s “Fibros” swung against Labor in the last Federal election, with a hall full of locals in attendance. Those voters are real is the message.

Local Minister Mark Tough of Lalor Park Anglican leads the local network that organised the rally.

“Both religious and non-religious people have concluded our religious freedom is under threat,” he said. “We want to inspire you to be active in the political process.”

Stories from Steenhof

First up of four keynote speakers at Free2B was John Steenhof of the Human Rights Law Alliance, which provides legal help to people and organisations in trouble with the law over religious freedom. He had stories.

“I want to tell you about ordinary religious Australians whose faith has come up against the wall,” Steenhof told the crowd in Bowman Hall.

“The first is Jason Tey, a photographer from Western Australia. Jason was originally an engineer but he now is a passionate photographer. He has strong convictions over marriage and wanted to celebrate men and women marrying for life. He had prepared a statement for clients who wanted to celebrate same-sex couples – ‘I know to give full service I will need to be invested in your service.’ – and saying he could provide recommendations of other photographers, and would be prepared to take the couples’ photos in any case.

“All he had done was give his opinion of marriage.” – John Steenhof

“After he was approached by a lesbian couple, he was attacked on Facebook after the couple posted only part of his statement which made it seem that he had refused to provide any services.

“The couple was not happy with the social media attack but followed up and made a formal complaint under the Equal Opportunity Act in WA. Jason says his first impression was that this was not a big deal, that it was a mistake.

“But the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) responded “This is a real claim and you will need legal advice,” which left Jason feeling  quite alone. He reached out to the HRLA.

“Jason was of the view that the Commission would have an atmosphere of neutrality; all he had done was give his opinion of marriage.

“But he felt under pressure at a mediation; the presence of a HRLA lawyer prevented him from settling, to pay money and apologise. The Commissioner made it clear the Commission would fund the complainant’s case to the tribunal. But when it came to the tribunal, the complainant would have to make a major statement they dropped the claim.”

Steenhof described Jason’s case as one where the process was the punishment.

“A contrasting case also from WA – Chris and Mary, a builder and a stay-at-home mum, had heard of the need for foster parents. They had a preliminary assessment by two social workers. Chris and Mary wanted to provide respite care at first, with children between zero and five.

“After it became clear they were Christians, they were given worksheets, including one about the care of LGBT children. The couple were not planning to foster children where that was going to be relevant in their view. The couple said we wouldn’t be able to accept a child that identifies as LGBTQ because we regard this lifestyle as sinful. But if we had already fostered a child that then identified as LGBTQ, we would not reject them.

“Finally, they were told they were ‘unsafe’ to foster children because of the views they had expressed.

“In this case, the EOC was unhelpful and told the couple they could not have a claim of discrimination. The Commission said we don’t think you have been discriminated against because of your religious beliefs. The case is now proceeding.

“This is an important case. It is important for all those who want to take part in fostering. If orthodox Christians are removed from fostering, it will remove a large number of caring people from the system.

“I believe we can make accommodation in our society for both those with Christian views and those with same-sex attractions without driving Christians out of the service.”

Fixing the bill

Next up was Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the School of Law, Notre Dame Australia, on what lawmakers need to do to better protect religious freedom. “In my view, the law in Australia has done more to damage than to protect religious freedom, ” Quinlan told the meeting. “It has not so far adopted a law to preserve religious freedom or prevent religious discrimination. This is in contrast to passing laws against discrimination on the basis of race, sex and age.”

Describing exemptions to these laws he added, “The very foundation of our anti-discrimination laws create arguments that religious people should lose their exemptions and be put back in their place.”

He described the example of how abortion laws can require referral from pro-life doctors. “Mark Hobart, a Melbourne doctor, was prosecuted for refusing to refer a patient seeking a late-term sex-selection abortion.”

Exclusion zones criminalised non-violent religious protest, and the Victorian law that breaks the seal of confession, were other examples cited which impinge on religious freedom.

“A Religious Discrimination Bill levels the playing field.” – Michael Quinlan

Quinlan believes the draft Religious Discrimination Bill is flawed. “It is good that the bill does not use exemption language of other laws. But religious believers can only act in ways that are lawful, to be protected. It would be an improvement to the bill if it overrides laws that proscribe religious activities unless serious criminal offences were involved.”

Quinlan was concerned that the adjudication of religious doctrine and teaching would fall to secular courts under the draft bill. The bill protects religious institutions that only hire staff from that particular faith but many hire staff prepared to uphold an ethos – a wider selection that is not protected.

Finally, Quinlan concluded the ‘Israel Folau problem’ is not solved by the draft bill – it does not apply to government or smaller businesses. But he does support the need for a religious discrimination bill: “It levels the playing field.”

MP: Help me help you

The next speaker, Michelle Rowland, is federal MP for Greenway (the western Sydney seat that covers the Blacktown region). She has urged her party, the ALP, to take religious people seriously. “I have distilled the topic ‘help me help you’ into four key areas,” she said to introduce her speech.

“The first is the need to elevate this issue. Some people see this as a fringe issue. But there is a real fear that there is a chilling impact on people’s way of life. One of the reasons for Labor’s loss … was Labor’s tone, which led to people who normally vote Labor to have a loss of faith in us. And many of these were people of faith.

“Forums like this do a great service to the cause by elevating the issue.

“This issue is not going away. There will not be a quick fix.” – Michelle Rowland

“Secondly, I don’t believe this issue will be decided on purely party political lines. There are individual senators and members who are informed by their faith or their regions. The focus has been on Labor, but there are vastly divergent views within the government. I make this point to show that this will be decided by individual members.

“The third point is understanding political opportunities as well as limitations. In this parliament, the makeup of the House of Representatives and the Senate is different from last time. There are only two more sitting weeks left. This is a very short time for a bill to pass through committees and pass both houses.

“My fourth point – I think it is good we have an exposure draft. There are people very underwhelmed by the draft bill and there are intricacies that need work. Some people call one clause the ‘Qantas clause’ that offers different levels of protection, based on a corporation’s wealth.”

“We need to identify and deal with any conflicts of rights.

“This issue is not going away. There will not be a quick fix. Engage respectfully with your local members.”

A current madness

John Anderson, former deputy PM, took the topic of “What would happen if we do nothing?

“Michelle,” he began, “I thoroughly enjoyed listening to a parliamentarian doing what they should be doing – getting across the issues. This is not a fringe society.

“I feel deeply sorry for current legislators who need to cut through the cacophony. We have entered an era of madness. We have become in Os Guinness’ words “a cut flower society”; We have been cut off from the stalks and roots of society.

We have lost the idea that to disagree with you is not to say ‘I don’t love you.'” – John Anderson

‘This current madness is the result of many people unwilling to govern themselves. We have also lost our sense of history.

“This has left us easily persuaded. I cannot believe the shallowness that persists in out public culture.

“Since the 1960s, the age of free love, we gave up the search for meta-narrative. We started to live for ourselves. It is the age of narcissism.

“This giving up on the search for meaning and purpose has left a huge vacuum.

“[John F] Kennedy’s clever words in 1963 ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ have been entirely reversed. We focus on our grievances, not our responsibilities and opportunities as citizens. We have lost the idea that to disagree with you is not to say ‘I don’t love you.'”

“Freedom of conscience, of which freedom of religion is a vital subset, is the first freedom, the basis of all the freedoms.”

LGBTIQ anxiety

The Bowman Hall meeting gathered a multi-ethnic crowd of mostly religious people anxious that religious freedom be protected.

Meanwhile, a survey of LGBTIQ people by the “just.equal” advocacy group reveals anxiety within that part of our society.

An online survey with 3,126 LGBTIQ people showed 70.5 per cent reported feeling negative or very negative during the postal survey period.

Among the group that reported negative feelings during the postal survey, 46.6 per cent reported feeling as bad during the current religious freedom and discrimination debate, and 32.2 reported feeling worse. About 21.3 per cent reported feeling better.

22.07 per cent of the LGBTIQ participants said that the primary aim of advocating for greater religious freedom was to protect the rights of people of faith.

70.85 per cent thought it was to take away the rights of LGBTIQ people.