How your freedoms are being eroded

Patrick Parkinson’s second lecture on ‘Family and Faith in a Multicultural Society”

This opinion piece is a slightly adapted version of Professor Patrick Parkinson’s second lecture in his series entitled ‘Family and Faith in a Multicultural Society’ for the New College Annual Lectures 2020. The first lecture is here.

In the first lecture of this series, I examined the erosion of marriage as the central structure for family life. I looked at the problem of a decline in the family stability of the nation, with 40 per cent of all young people now experiencing their parents living apart by the time they reach 17 years of age. That is up from 25 per cent about 20 years ago and up from less than 10 per cent in the 1960s. That decline in the family stability of our nation has real world consequences. It profoundly affects the mental health of our children and young people, and therefore the next generation of adults who will become parents.

The loss of family stability affects adults, too, with a large proportion of the population not finding, or being able to maintain, the secure and stable partnership which anchors their lives amid the turbulence of modern life.

This has implications for the future of the Church, and for its mission, which I will address in the final lecture. However, that is to jump ahead. In order to be the Church, in order to fulfil that mission, we need to see off a challenge to being the Church — a challenge to our religious freedom from an increasingly militant secular society.

But let’s be clear about what is not being challenged. There is no likelihood, any time in any of our lifetimes, that freedom of worship will be eroded. No one much cares whether I go to church on Sundays, any more than they care if I spend Sunday morning playing video games. I have the freedom to do what I want on Sunday mornings, and do not expect that to change, because my choice affects no one else and therefore no one has a reason to stir up a campaign to deprive me of that right. As Stanley Fish once put it, “tolerance is exercised in an inverse proportion to there being anything at stake.”

What is threatened is not what I do on Sundays, but what I do on Mondays and throughout the working week. Increasingly, there is a mood of hostility towards people of faith to the extent that they express their beliefs in the public square. And more generally, there is an erosion of freedom in our society which may not specifically target religion, but which disproportionately affects the expression of religious belief.

The four freedoms

To understand this, it is necessary to see how religious freedom relates to three other freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience. These four freedoms are indivisible. Without the other three, freedom of religion becomes nothing more than freedom of individual belief and freedom for private worship.

Take freedom of association. Freedom of association allows us to gather publicly to worship together, to be a Christian community — or as the case may be, a Jewish community, an Islamic community, a Mormon community. Being a religious community involves, necessarily, having boundaries. We need to decide who is permitted to belong to our group and who is excluded. Now it is rare to find a religious community which excludes people from attending. All faiths tend to be welcoming of those who are exploring religious belief. However, many religious groups will have more demanding tests for being a member — particularly one with voting rights in the governance of the faith community. In the case of traditional Baptist churches, that may be water baptism as an expression of personal faith and trust in God. In other groups, conditions for membership may involve adherence to a set of beliefs or a creedal statement, as in many evangelical societies. Other religious groups and faiths have their own criteria for membership.

And just as there are conditions for inclusion as a member, so there may be grounds for exclusion. For example, a couple might be excluded from the fellowship, or denied communion, because they are living together outside of marriage. You may think such rules are valid, or that they are abhorrent.

If you find them abhorrent, it may be because you want to say that the religious group should not discriminate against any couple on the basis of their sexual conduct in private. You may go further and say that the religious group should not be allowed to discriminate against the couple because of their sexual conduct in private. If you do find it troubling that someone might be expelled from a group because of their sexual conduct in private, then what you are challenging is not so much freedom of religion as freedom of association — the right of groups who come together on the basis of religion, ethnicity, political conviction, concern for a particular cause, or even simply in order to do some activity together (such as bushwalking), to define for themselves who is, and is not, able to belong to that group.

Freedom of association only becomes an issue when other interests are at stake — particularly when other people’s rights are at stake.

The same is true of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is fundamental to religious freedom, at least for any faith whose adherents either speak or write about their beliefs. The right to preach a sermon, the right to post a blog on the internet, or a commentary on your Facebook page; the right to engage in conversation about matters of faith around the water cooler — all of these are aspects of freedom of speech. Without freedom of speech there is no freedom of religion; if you restrict speech on religious matters, you restrict freedom of religion.

The last of the four freedoms is freedom of conscience. I need hardly spell out how this relates to freedom of religion, for most often when people have conscientious objections to doing something that they would otherwise be required to do, it is an objection founded on a religious belief. So many concern issues about life — an objection to military force, for instance, or opposition to abortion or euthanasia.

Like all the other freedoms, freedom of conscience does not become much of an issue unless someone else’s rights or interests are affected. If a pacifist is exempted from conscription into the armed forces, then the pool of young men or women who can be conscripted is marginally less; but no other individual is directly affected. So too if a nurse or doctor does not want to participate in abortions, then the most likely scenario is that they will not seek a job in a clinic or a department of a hospital, where abortions are performed. Most freedom of conscience issues can be resolved by back-office rostering without the public being remotely affected. Sometimes, however, there is, or may be, a more direct clash between freedom of conscience and someone else’s rights or interests.

When freedoms clash with rights

The problems we are now experiencing with religious freedom have a number of origins.

1. The pathetic weakness of freedoms

The first is that freedoms, as a matter of law, are very weak. Pathetically weak, in fact. You may say that religious freedom is a cornerstone of the Western legal tradition, as is freedom of speech or freedom of association — but that is as meaningful as saying that being embarrassed about sex is essential to what it means to be English. That may be true, but all that can be said is that it is a characteristic of a certain generation of English people. It is not in the DNA of the English.

Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association have for quite a long time been characteristics of Western civilisation, but it would be a stretch to say that they are fundamental values. Indeed, historically, religious freedom is quite a recent phenomenon. The Huguenots, the Anabaptists, at various stages and in various countries, Catholics and Jews testify from their graves that our commitment to religious freedom does not have ancient roots.

Freedom, in other words, is the absence of restriction.

Beyond this, freedom is pathetically weak because it is not supported or buttressed by law.

To claim I have a freedom to do something provides no defence to a legal action except to the extent that I can assert successfully that there is no law against the impugned conduct. That is, to claim I have a freedom gives no entitlement, no power to lodge a complaint or bring a legal action. Indeed, it is almost a misnomer to talk of a “legal freedom.” All that could be meant by this is that no law prevents me doing the thing I want to do, or saying the things I want to say, and no one has a legal right to take action against me for those things that I do or say.

Freedom, in other words, is the absence of restriction.

Freedoms may be little more than temporary vacuums that have not yet been filled by legal regulation or prohibition. They are like Crown Land — land which is open to all — but only because the government has not yet sold it into private ownership, leased it to a developer, or given exclusive grazing rights to a farmer. Freedoms last only as long as governments do not interfere with them, and they exist only to the extent that governments choose to leave that freedom in place. Freedoms are pathetically weak in legal terms — in the absence of a constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights, they are as powerful a defence as a wall of straw bales against a bulldozer.

It is true that courts must interpret statutes with reference to the principle of legality. That principle requires that statutes be interpreted with the aid of “a presumption that Parliament does not intend to interfere with common law rights and freedoms except by clear and unequivocal language for which Parliament may be accountable to the electorate.” However, if Parliament is clear about what it is doing, it can override any right or freedom it wishes. Absolute tyranny is protected only by the democratic process.

Now, it might be said that this is an argument for a constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights. That would give legal substance to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other freedoms. I will concede that sometimes they will help. There have been decisions that have affirmed the importance of freedom of religion or conscience from the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the United States Supreme Court. However, those cases are comparatively few in recent years. If one takes a look at the run of cases under the Human Rights Act in England or the Charter of Rights in Canada, the overwhelming impression is that the courts are breathtakingly dismissive of the rights of freedom of religion and conscience, whenever other interests, beliefs, and values are in issue. They will protect religious freedom when no other significant interests are involved.

Remember, tolerance is exercised in an inverse proportion to there being anything at stake.

Human rights lawyers will tell you that all rights and freedoms have an equal status. None are more fundamental nor important than others. If rights conflict, then the decision-maker must balance the competing rights. Such language disguises huge value judgments. What so often happens is that the result of that balancing exercise is to subjugate religious freedom to other rights and interests. All animals, as George Orwell put it, are equal, but some are more equal than others. And somehow, in our modern secular society, when the balancing is done, freedom of religion loses out to other interests. This is so as much in societies that have human rights charters as those which do not.

So freedoms are weak. They exist only to the extent that legislatures have not intruded upon them by regulation. Even where freedom of religion and conscience do have some protection in law, secular courts imbued with the spirit of the age typically do little to protect them.

2. All of us have megaphones now

The second reason why we are now experiencing issues with religious freedom is that the internet and social media have given every one of us megaphones. These days, when someone says something controversial on social media, it can create a Twitterstorm. Hundreds, even thousands, can express their views not only to the person who made the comment but to thousands of others who quickly join the virtual lynch mob. It is easy to mistake that for public opinion — and a great many journalists do. In fact, there may be just a few hundred expressing a view, or a few thousand. That is not many in a country of 25 million, but it can be mistaken for a majority view; and people who fear the lynch mob on social media can be intimidated into silence. They go along with the groupthink, or keep silent about their views. If they transgress, not infrequently they will issue a grovelling apology.

People can also give the impression of representing large numbers of people simply by claiming to represent them. All you need is a website or a Facebook page, some letterhead, and a lot of chutzpah. You can then speak to journalists or make submissions to government, claiming to represent a much larger group than you do. The Internet, Facebook, and other social media can give tiny groups an outsize significance.

In a time when everyone can speak, when everyone has a megaphone, we have never been less free to speak our minds, to express our opinions on anything which is controversial in the minds of the guardians of the public square. We are increasingly intimidated as a society by angry and extreme minorities, aided and abetted by enough people in the universities and the mainstream media, to give the impression that these are majority opinions.

Religious views … tend to feature prominently on the list of hateful ideas.

All freedom of speech is now under threat. It is important not to interpret this as particularly an anti-religious phenomenon. Clearly it is not. Nor is it even an attack on conservative views. Some of the most strident denunciations we are seeing today are by “progressives” attacking others who would describe themselves as left-wing — and, in particular, traditional feminists. Try saying on Twitter that only women menstruate, or that what it means to be male or female is defined by the reproductive functions of our genitalia, and all hell will break loose, as J.K. Rowling found out recently.

There are all sorts of views which, in the eyes of some, are so disturbing that they must be shouted down; but disproportionately this seems to affect speech expressing religious views — views which used to be mainstream. Precisely because they used to be mainstream, they are the most quickly and emphatically condemned. Religious views, together with views that are more likely to be held by traditionalists, tend to feature prominently on the list of hateful ideas.

Why such fanaticism? It is difficult not to see this as a quasi-religious movement. Having a cause, a struggle, gives meaning and purpose for those whose lives are otherwise bereft of meaning or purpose. It also provides a packaged set of beliefs, and gives a sense of belonging with others who share those beliefs. There can be a sense of power in the pile-on, much as rioters feel power amidst the destructive pandemonium. There is, oddly enough, pleasure in self-righteous rage.

3. The problem of definition inflation

Another reason why religious freedom is under threat is that a certain section of the university-educated community insists on inflating the meaning of words of disapproval. This is a deliberate strategy, to stretch beyond all reasonable recognition words that have emotive power. We condemn personal violence; we condemn abuse. And so an ever-increasing array of things that people disapprove of are described as violent or abusive. Words, we are told, are a form of violence; silence is violence. Recently, the Australian Feminist Law Journal published an article in which the author asserted that ascribing sex to a baby on a birth certificate is “intrinsically violent.”

Words like “racist” and “transphobic” are also given expanded meanings in the new lexicon — as is the term “hate speech.” That can be given an extraordinarily broad meaning, to cover any speech which someone finds to be offensive. Hate speech can get someone into trouble with laws against vilification, and this can be a ground for complaint under anti-discrimination laws.

4. The weaponisation of complaints

Another reason why religious freedom is under threat is that we have so expanded our anti-discrimination laws, and our ideas about discrimination, that complaints processes established to assist victims of discrimination and vilification, have been weaponised in support of particular causes.

One way that this has happened is that people are now bringing complaints against other people, even though they are not personally and directly affected by adverse conduct. This is not what anti-discrimination laws were meant to do. Complaints under anti-discrimination laws used to be made only by people who were in some way directly affected. An example is sex-discrimination. An employer might discriminate against a woman on the basis of her sex by overlooking her for promotion out of concern that she might fall pregnant, notwithstanding that she might be the best person for the job.

The law also prohibits indirect discrimination. This is where, for example, a policy in the workplace indirectly discriminates against women, having a much greater proportionate affect on women than men. The circle of those who are affected is still limited. The potential complainants are only those affected in that workplace.

However, we have now expanded the notion of harm so that if someone expresses a view to which someone else objects on a variety of different grounds, then that can be the basis of a claim of vilification or discrimination. The complaint is brought simply because of the views that have been expressed.

Take, for example, the Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous case in Tasmania. Section 17 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas.) makes it unlawful for a person to “engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person” on the basis of various protected attributes — which include race, age, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, gender, gender identity, intersex, marital status, relationship status, pregnancy, breastfeeding, parental status or family responsibilities. This is subject to the qualification that the conduct (which includes speech) must have occurred in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed.

This section was used to bring a complaint against Archbishop Porteous, the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart. He was summoned before a Tasmanian anti-discrimination body for distributing a booklet put out by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference defending its traditional view of marriage. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference was required to answer the complaint along with Archbishop Porteous. The basis was that the complainant had been offended by a publication that was distributed nationwide, and which expressed a point of view on a matter of national public debate.

It ought to be entirely uncontroversial that a Senator should express a view publicly on a matter of controversy in which opinions differ markedly.

Now, the case against Archbishop Porteous is well-known. Again and again, I have heard it dismissed by people as a once-off. “The complainant dropped the case,” we are told. So what’s the fuss? Yes, the complaint was eventually dropped. What is remarkable and troubling about this case, however, is not that the complaint was made, but that it was accepted by the relevant Commissioner, who saw it as a potentially valid complaint under the legislation. Other complaints have been brought against clergy under this section for expressing religious viewpoints.

Recent events demonstrate it is not a once-off at all. Earlier this month, on 3 September, Senator Claire Chandler, a Tasmanian senator, received a letter from the Tasmanian Equal Opportunity Commission. The Anti-Discrimination Commissioner summoned her to attend a mediation over an op-ed she had written concerning freedom of speech and an email she had sent to a constituent. In each of these she expressed the view that women’s sports, changing rooms, and toilets were designed for those of the female sex and should remain that way. The Commissioner, apparently, found that this view “could be considered offensive, intimidating, insulting, ridiculing or humiliating.” She went on to say that it is arguable that it is no longer necessary to have separate toilets based on sex.

As Senator Chandler has observed, the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner is welcome to hold a different view from her on the issue of whether women’s sports, changing rooms and toilets should be reserved for those of the female sex. They can campaign against her in an election. What I find troubling is that the resources of an investigative body that can refer a matter to a tribunal are being utilised in what could be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the Senator into silence on an issue about which she and many constituents feel very strongly. The complainant was not even a transgender person. Even still, the Commissioner saw fit to proceed to deal with at least part of the complaint. Senator Chandler has indicated that she will not be withdrawing, retracting, modifying or apologising for her comments on women’s sport and women’s facilities.

It is a very recent development that laws have been passed allowing people to change their gender on birth certificates on the basis of a self-declared gender identity and without having undergone any medical processes towards gender reassignment. The first such laws were passed in Tasmania and Victoria in 2019. These laws are very controversial. Treating the expression of a mainstream point of view on an issue of public policy as even potentially in violation of anti-discrimination law crosses a line on free speech that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Furthermore, in each case, they were defending the existing position in Australian law. The Catholic Bishops were defending the position that the Marriage Act 1961 should continue to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Senator Chandler is defending the existing position that there is no requirement for female sports competitions to admit participants who identify as female but remain anatomically male. The law is clear on this. Section 42 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) provides that it is lawful to exclude someone from participation “in any competitive sporting activity in which the strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant” because their gender identity is different from their anatomical sex. The law in New South Wales is even clearer. Nothing in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 “renders unlawful the exclusion of a transgender person from participation in any sporting activity for members of the sex with which the transgender person identifies.”

It simply cannot be unlawful in Tasmania for a federal Senator to express an opinion that the law of the Commonwealth of Australia should be maintained as it is, or that the law of New South Wales should remain as it is, nor to insist that female changing rooms or toilets be managed on the basis of sex rather than gender identity.

The problem with this weaponising of complaints processes is that the defendant typically undertakes considerable effort and expense in responding to such complaints, even if they are eventually discontinued. This has a chilling effect on freedom of speech. It ought to be entirely uncontroversial that Catholic Bishops should be allowed to explain Catholic doctrine without fearing legal repercussions. It ought to be entirely uncontroversial that a Senator should express a view publicly on a matter of controversy in which opinions differ markedly. These are foundational freedoms in any democratic society.

5. Complaints processes in universities and corporations

This right to complain does not only arise from anti-discrimination laws. It can also arise from codes of conduct. Take the policies of my own university, the University of Queensland, which are likely to be typical of many other policies to be found in universities, government departments and corporations. Generally, the University’s policy documents, such as our Code of Conduct, are well-drafted and appropriate for their purpose. They say what you would expect and want them to say. However, they can contain some vague and expansive phrases which are capable of definition inflation. An example is the student misconduct policy. Grounds of complaint on the basis of general misconduct include:

behaving in a manner that prejudices the reputation of the University;

harassing, vilifying, bullying or abusing, staff, students or other members of the University’s community;

behaving inappropriately in an [University] activity.

It is a basic legal standard that if the Parliament wants to prohibit something, citizens need a clear understanding of the conduct that is prohibited so that they can avoid doing the things that would contravene the law. In order to obey the law, you have to know what the law requires. This is the reason why criminal offences must be precisely and carefully defined. Disciplinary codes in universities and corporations need to adhere to similar standards.

A further feature of the University of Queensland’s policy is that anyone — even a member of the public completely unaffected by the matter personally — can complain about any student with the consequence that the complaint will need to be investigated. In this way, university complaints procedures can be weaponised.

As a Head of School, I recently received a complaint from a member of the public seeking to invoke the University’s disciplinary procedures against a colleague of mine for a view he expressed on national television. The complainant simply disagreed with my colleague’s view. It is public knowledge that there was a complaint against one of our undergraduate students from an academic at La Trobe University specialising in anthropology, based upon a statement that the undergraduate made on Twitter in early January this year. The academic thought that the tweet constituted cyber-abuse, but not against him. He was not affected by it in any conceivable way. Not only did he lodge a formal complaint about it to the University, he encouraged others to do so as well, providing them with a link to the University of Queensland website. The University’s policies and procedures in this area are now being reviewed.

No doubt similar examples could be offered of the weaponisation of codes of conduct and disciplinary procedures in universities across the country and perhaps in large corporations as well. These are general threats to freedom, not at all specific to religious freedom; but many such complaints will be about expressions of religious conviction or religious viewpoints on moral issues.

6. The expansion of anti-discrimination laws

So religious freedom is under threat: because freedoms are simply the absence, for the time being, of prohibition or regulation; because we all have megaphones now; because, under some laws and codes of conduct, people can make complaints even if they are not personally affected by some discriminatory action; because now some laws prohibit the expression of opinions that others find offensive; and because some emotive words are given an extraordinarily broad application.

Another reason why religious freedom is under threat is because there are now more and more categories of discrimination which are unlawful. The list used to be just a few: race, sex, age, disability, more recently sexual orientation. But some states in Australia keep adding to the list. So for example, among the 20 different grounds on which someone can now sue for discrimination in Tasmania is “lawful sexual activity.” There is a similar provision in Victoria. Could a church be taken to court for discrimination if it were to discipline a youth worker for engaging in frequent casual sexual relationships? Such activity is lawful. Another prohibited ground of discrimination is “relationship status,” which is in addition to “marital status.” What if the youth worker was living with someone in an intimate relationship outside of marriage? Discrimination against a youth worker on the grounds of lawful sexual activity or relationship status could get a church into trouble in Tasmania. For the church, it is a matter of discriminating between right and wrong.

The broad-based laws in in other states and territories do not create the same difficulties due to exemptions for religious organisations, but those exemptions are very limited indeed in Tasmania. They are also under attack elsewhere.

7. The campaign against exemptions

This brings me to the final reason why religious freedom is under threat in Australia: because of a strong hostility to having any exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for religious bodies. There has been a sustained attack on the established ways of balancing anti-discrimination norms with religious freedom rights through the use of exemptions. There are moderate positions on this, of course, and more extreme positions; but a commonly expressed view is that exemptions in anti-discrimination laws are wrong and should not be tolerated. No one, it is argued, should be exempt from the operation of general laws. Many advocates would like the law in Australia as a whole to be as limited as it is in Tasmania.

An example of this opposition to exemptions is some of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission. In the 1990s, it was supportive of religious freedom, proposing a Religious Freedom Act and recommending, in appropriate circumstances, the use of exemptions. However, in 2008, it seems that the Commission took an entirely different view of religious freedom. In a published submission to a parliamentary inquiry, it questioned the exemption provided by s.37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) for religious organisations and proposed a three-year sunset clause on its continued operation, during which time further reform could be considered. It did so because “the permanent exemption does not provide support for women of faith who are promoting gender equality within their religious body.” In other words, it was advancing a policy position that suggested it should be unlawful for the Catholic Church to insist on a male priesthood. This view was taken even though the Commission recognised that Article 6 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion (1981) specifically provides for the right to “train, appoint, elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders called for by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief.”

It is common for other human rights organisations to argue against exemptions in anti-discrimination law, as well. This campaign to remove exemptions reflects a far more expansive view of the State’s role in regulating community organisations than has ever been known in the past. Michael McConnell, a former US federal judge, explains that in contrast to the limited scope of anti-discrimination laws in the past, now “there is a widespread sense not only that the government should be neutral, tolerant and egalitarian, but so should all of us, and so should our private associations.”

The importance of this for religious freedom is that it is through exemptions that freedoms are balanced with equality rights. Take for example, a women’s gym. How can a women’s gym be tolerated in an age of sexual equality? Because of exemptions, or a similar drafting device. How can a club survive in which only men may become members? For the same reason — an exemption in the relevant statute. How can a political party insist that all its employees support the political worldview of the party? For the same reason — an exemption in the law.

Religious freedom in Australia rests almost entirely on exemptions such as these. This is a narrow ledge for a fundamental freedom, and it is beginning to crumble under the sustained attack of groups campaigning to reduce or eliminate these exemptions. These groups — most claiming to be concerned with human rights — are driven by a concern for an entirely individualistic idea of “equality” which seemingly has no place for the importance of freedom of association for groups that exist to promote cultural or religious purposes.

Religious freedom cannot properly be protected by grudging exceptions to otherwise applicable laws in anti-discrimination statutes. What is needed, in the context of faith-based organisations such as religious schools, is a positive affirmation of the right of faith-based associations to govern themselves in accordance with their traditions, values, and precepts, and to choose or prefer staff who adhere to the beliefs or values of the organisation for employment. That, in turn, requires that religious organisations be permitted to adopt and enforce codes of conduct that are consistent with those values. Such a positive affirmation of the right to freedom of religion is, for the most part, absent from Australian law.

The freedom to advertise for Christian staff in Christian schools, beyond just the chaplain and the school principal, the freedom to advertise for Jewish staff in Jewish schools, Muslim staff in Muslim schools, and so on, is critical to freedom of association — for religious schools are an important part of building communities of faith. Freedom of association, at least for groups which exist for a cultural or religious purpose, is essential to being a multicultural and multi-faith society. So too is freedom of speech on moral and social questions, and freedom of conscience. Currently, the law has little or no protection for those freedoms.

The organisation which I chair, Freedom for Faith, is active in seeking to address these problems. It is a legal think-tank drawing upon the expertise of legal academics and practising lawyers around the country. We seek to develop bipartisan support for reasonable and sensible reform, talking with both Labor and the Coalition on such matters. We would also talk to the Greens if they were open to dialogue. The way forward is to find solutions to problems that are respectful of all the interests involved and which allow people to “live and let live,” accepting their differences. However, finding solutions is increasingly impeded by hostility to people of faith.

8. Discrimination against people of faith

Intolerance towards faith is becoming an ever-larger problem in Australia; and this is a troubling development in a society that is so multicultural. It threatens the cohesion of our multi-faith society.

Antisemitism, which is one of the most vile, but also one of the most persistent, tendencies of Western societies, is emerging afresh in our time. Antisemitic incidents in Australia increased by 59 per cent in 2018, compared to the previous year. Our Islamic communities feel under threat from the fear and suspicion that members of those communities may be associated with terrorist activities.

Christians, too, are experiencing increasing levels of discrimination against them because of their faith. Mostly, this has been covert, but it is becoming increasingly overt. This was particularly seen in the debate about same-sex marriage. Various large corporations became hostile workplaces for anyone who did not support the management’s strong endorsement of marriage equality. That debate is now over; but LGBTQ advocacy groups have a number of other policy agendas they are pursuing, particularly on transgender issues. Queensland and the ACT have recently passed legislation that threatens people with jail terms for providing therapy to children and young people who are experiencing gender identity issues to help them become more comfortable in their natal sex. It is far from clear whether the established clinical practices of psychologists and psychiatrists are exempted from that prohibition. People who oppose particular policy agendas that are highly controversial are all too readily vilified as “homophobic” or “transphobic.” This is a difficult atmosphere in which to have calm and reasoned policy debates about the public good.

These issues will keep coming, creating issues of conscience for people of faith. An example is the pressure from some quarters for people to declare their preferred pronouns at the bottom of email signature blocks, and in other ways. Christians, and others, who cannot in good conscience accept the unscientific belief systems that underlie some of these policies, will find themselves increasingly thrown to the lions in large corporations and other workplaces. For that reason, it is disappointing that there is not, at this stage, bipartisan support, even in principle, for a federal law prohibiting religious discrimination.

Universities also need to consider what they are doing about intolerance towards people of faith. Christian students increasingly report to me how hostile they find some university classrooms to be. I have heard particular concerns about social work degrees, but it is doubtful that this problem is limited to just one study area.

A canary in the coalmine in all of this is the lack of inclusiveness of many secular organisations’ “diversity and inclusion” policies. Not infrequently, various groups are mentioned, but there is no acknowledgement at all of religious belief. To the extent there is any mention, it is to be found in references to “culture” — but it is not only ethnic minorities who hold religious beliefs.

Dangerous developments for freedoms

The combination of all the factors I have described represents a dangerous development for the future of our democracy. There is an element in our society which doesn’t seem to have much of a commitment to freedom of speech, or freedom of religion, or freedom of conscience. There is an element that doesn’t accept the trade-offs and compromises that are required for a healthy multicultural society. There is an element which doesn’t believe in free debate, and is not prepared to argue about facts or to listen to other opinions. This element in our society is small, but sometimes appear almost fanatically self-righteous and very well organised. These people represent a serious threat to the cohesion of our (hitherto successful) multicultural society. The influence of this element is greatly enhanced by the megaphone of social media, supported by those elements of the mainstream press and television which treat the endless expressions of outrage on this or that as a newsworthy story.

While this element may be small in terms of the overall population, it is a significant sector in universities. As someone who has been in the university sector for over 35 years, I find the situation most concerning — particularly the level of censorship on certain issues. For instance, on issues identified as involving “social justice,” it is extremely difficult to get published in academic journals because editors and anonymous referees act as determined gatekeepers to exclude certain viewpoints. It would seem that the fanatically self-righteous are afraid of open debate, and are prepared to dismiss facts which contradict the received wisdom.

An intolerant cancel culture is taking hold, more so in Britain and North America than in Australia for now, but it is certainly happening here as well. To repeat the words of Stanley Fish I cited at the beginning, “tolerance is exercised in an inverse proportion to there being anything at stake.”

It is important to emphasise, as I did earlier, that this is not per se an anti-religious movement, or even an anti-conservative movement. Even those on the left of politics, people who perceive themselves to be liberal and progressive, can find themselves targets of online lynch mobs and vilified on social media. All those who hold views of the world that are not endorsed as “correct” by the prevailing groupthink can find themselves subjected to ostracism, social media pile-ons or even campaigns for their dismissal. That is very difficult for people who want to be accepted, praised, or just supported in their careers. It is difficult to be hated. It is difficult to go against the tide.

Christians are not hated because they believe in God or attend church. Like I said, no one cares what I do on Sundays. However, Christians are often more likely to be subject to hatred because they tend to hold traditional values and ideas. And the greatest irony, perhaps, is that some of those who advocate to restrict freedom of speech, religion, association, and conscience, proclaim themselves to be the guardians of human rights and to support “diversity and inclusion.”

There is an urgent need for the mainstream to rescue the national conversation from the extremists, and to protect long-valued and fundamental freedoms. How that is to be done is the challenge. A starting point is to make a determined effort to give megaphones to mainstream voices, rather than giving oxygen to the extremists. Those mainstream politicians who believe in traditional freedoms must become much more assertive, less cowered by Twittermobs, more confident in their fundamental values. Much of what is fundamental to a free and democratic society is at stake. We need to work towards a time when, once again, the national conversation is dominated by the sane.

However, it may be that some of these trends at least, are irreversible. In the final lecture, we will explore what this will mean for the Church, living in a society that is increasingly hostile to Christian beliefs and values.

Professor Patrick Parkinson AM is the Academic Dean and Head of School for the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. The views expressed in this lecture are, of course, just personal opinions.

Comments