Freedom of religion is on the government's agenda (really)

It’s not just a cynical excise. The Ruddock Review could make a difference

The timing is awful. Cricket and Christmas is what everyone is thinking of. But the committee the Federal Government has set up to review religious freedoms is for real and Christians need to set about writing submissions now.

Michael Kellahan, executive director of the think tank Freedom For Faith, explains how important this review is and why it could set the Christian agenda in Australia for years to come:

Heads of churches and leaders of Christian organisations need to be aware of the importance, scope and timing of the Phillip Ruddock-led review into religious freedom. It has the potential to lead to a legal framework at Federal level which will undergird a new societal compact for the religious freedom of people of faith and their organisations in an increasingly irreligious society.

This is much broader than the recent marriage debate.

Leaders of the Liberal and Labor party have indicated both publicly and privately, that they are open to legislative reform for sensible protection of religious freedom. The terms of reference for the Panel are broad and crucially include the interaction of Commonwealth and state law. The Panel will:

  • consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights;
  • have regard to any previous or ongoing reviews or inquiries that it considers relevant; and
  • consult as widely as it considers necessary.

This is much broader than the recent marriage debate. The inquiry will only be as strong as the quality of the submissions made to it. There is a need to not just describe the deficiencies of the current legal framework but also to offer workable solutions.

The timeframe is very tight – initial submissions are due by 31 January, 2018

From the churches’ point of view, the Ruddock Review is likely to be the best chance for some years to engage with the Federal Government on a new societal compact between people of faith and secular society.

The timeframe is very tight though – initial submissions are due by 31 January and the Report will be delivered by the end of March. Given the inevitable shutdown over the Christmas/New Year period, this leaves a very narrow window to prepare for such a critical inquiry.

Freedom for Faith is planning to make a substantial submission to the Inquiry. This will be authored by Professor Patrick Parkinson, one of our founding Board members, and a well respected expert in the field. This submission will be broad enough to represent the concerns of faith-based groups, but will also be written with an eye to craft solutions that are likely to win bipartisan political support. We hope that it is the leading response and that other submissions may endorse its recommendations where they are able to.

By demonstrating broad agreement around a set of sensible proposals, we are much more likely to see a positive outcome from the Inquiry.

The Ruddock Review is of considerable importance.

In the last fortnight, this strategic approach has gained the in principle support of the Australian Christian Churches, Sydney Anglicans, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and the Coalition for Marriage (who is encouraging the churches in its networks to consider endorsing the Freedom for Faith submission). Others, like Sydney Catholics and Christian Schools Australia, who will be making their own significant submissions, have welcomed our attempt to galvanise a broad consensus and will work with us where possible with the recommendations they come to.

We therefore want heads of churches and leaders of Christian organisations, to be aware of our strategy and to consider whether they can also rally behind it. For those interested, we hope to send an advanced draft by 15 January and then give a Sydney briefing in the following week. That will allow time to consider endorsing the recommendations we propose and for those making their own submission, to use the materials we have prepared in their own work.

There are substantial costs involved in producing our submission. We have received some generous financial backing from some churches to enable us to undertake this project. We would ask any wanting to receive the draft submission to consider what they may be able to give towards this vital work. We do not want finances to be a barrier from any group receiving the best possible advice and from us having the advantage of a broad consensus. We therefore won’t charge a fee for the project but ask those taking part to contribute as they are able.

The Ruddock Review is of considerable importance. Beyond it, there is work to be done on both sides of politics, and also at state and territory levels, to forge a new societal compact in which people of faith can continue to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Tim. 2:2).