Folau, the Pentecostal PM and religious freedom

Three stories serve to underline the issue of religious freedom as the election approaches. And it seems in the last week of the campaign those three stories – Folau, Scott Morrisons’ faith, and religious freedom, have become one.

“Religious freedom has rightly emerged as an important issue during this election campaign,” Michael Kellahan of Freedom for Faith tells Eternity. “We’ve mostly got Israel Folau to thank for that. People have asked questions about how Christian faith should stand in the public square. The last couple of days have seen that with the PM being questioned over his own beliefs on Hell. The one thing that has been missing is clear political leadership.”

Kellahan’s assessment is backed up by several Christian groups which rank religious freedom as the top election issue.

“I am asking all Australians to remind their elected representatives in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that freedom to follow Christian faith  and values has contributed to making our nation one of the most free and prosperous nations in the world” says Greg Bondar of Family Voice Australia which has been campaigning hard in this election. The Australian Christian Churches have emailed a link to the Family Voices checklist this morning.

The emergence of religious freedom as an issue is backed by a new YouGov Galaxy opinion survey showing that Australians strongly support the need for legal protections for freedoms of thought, conscience and belief (including religious belief) and that support has risen sharply in the last two years.

The poll for the Institute for Civil Society shows 75 % of those surveyed agreed that freedom of thought, conscience and belief in public through speech, practice and teaching needed to be protected. Only 5% disagreed and 20% were undecided. Support has risen from the 62% who agreed to a similar question in a Newspoll in August 2017.

PM Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal faith has been targeted by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, causing the Washington Post headline “Australian political leaders agree gays don’t go to hell”.

The PM was asked at the start of the week if he believes “gay people go to hell”. This wording was an attempt to link the Pentecostal PM and the Pentecostal Rugby Union player.

His first response was “I support the law of the country and I always don’t mix my religion with politics and my faith with politics. It’s always been something that has informed how I live my life and how I seek to care for and support others. That’s how it’s always informed me and that’s what I always seek to do…. You know, none of us are perfect, none of us are saints in that respect. We try and do what is right and we try and do what is best and that’s what always sought to guide me in terms of my own personal faith. But as I said, my faith is not about politics. It’s about just, who I am, just like it is for everyone who holds such a deep faith.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten responded “… But you know, I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell. I cannot believe that the prime minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell. This country needs to really lift itself and the political debate and courage needs to lift itself in the next four days.”

Question: Do you believe that gay people should go to hell?

Shorten: No, I don’t believe that gay people, because they’re gay, should go to hell.

Later Financial Review reporter Tom McIlroy tweeted “Statement from Scott Morrison saying he doesn’t believe gay people go to hell: ‘No, I do not believe that. It was a desperate, cheap shot from Bill Shorten who is looking to distract attention from his housing tax that will undermine the value of people’s homes.’”

Reading carefully, a Christian with a traditional view of marriage might observe that these two politicians might have been talking about subtly different things. Shorten was talking of LGBT people generally, while the PM may have been drawing a distinction between LGBT orientation (which is not mentioned in the Bible) and homosexual sex.

The question of what Christians can or should say in public points to the third story: religious freedom, with schools as the focus.

In any case, the question of what Christians can or should say in public points to the third story: religious freedom, with schools as the focus. “There are very real and unanswered questions about the potential reform faith based schools may face,” says Kellahan.

These questions include the ability to hire staff that reflect a school’s values. The Coalition has referred this and other religious freedom issues to the Australian Law Reform Commission. Labor supports this referral but also supports removing exemptions from the Sex Discrimination Act in principle, in a manner that balances anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom.

“Much may depend on the makeup of the Senate,” Kellahan points out. “The election will not resolve what is a deeper and longer running cultural, political and legal contest. So if Christians have been engaged on religious freedom questions during the campaign it is vital that they be engaged beyond it – whoever forms government after Saturday. That begins with prayer.”

In a letter to religious leaders, PM Morrison has reiterated the Coalition commitment to a Religious Discrimination Bill if re-elected. (If you follow this link, Morrison’s reply needs the original letter to make sense. The letters to Morrison and Shorten are here.)

“The Bill will make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, including on the basis that a person does not hold any religious belief or does not engage in any religious activity.

“The Bill will follow the structure of existing federal anti-discrimination legislation. It will set out specific protections from discrimination, including protection from discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity in defined areas of public life. For example, the Bill will protect against religious discrimination in education, employment, access to premises, the provision of goods, services and facilities, and accommodation.

“In line with other federal anti-discrimination legislation, the Bill will also include appropriate exemptions that safeguard the freedoms of religious bodies, educational institutions and charities.”

However the Coalition wants to remove discrimination based on identity (meaning LGBT) while allowing schools to maintain their religious character.

“My Government is committed to preserving the ability of religious schools to maintain their distinctive faith-based ethos. The right of religious institutions to conduct themselves in a way consistent with their ethos must be protected.

At the same time, my Government also believes that to the extent practicable, legislative exemptions to prohibitions on discrimination based on a person’s identity should be limited or removed altogether.”

In the final leaders’ debate, Opposition leader Bill Shorten addressed religious freedom. “I think this is one of these topics which thankfully for Australians the leaders of the two parties have a closer sense of position than a greater sense of argument. People should be free to practice their religion.

“I think you go, so we’ve got to work through the Australian Law Reform Commission’s working out how we work this through and how we work out exemptions in the law which get the balance right between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom. So we’ll work through that.

“If we’re elected the government we’ll sit down with the churches and lawyers and Law Reform Commission and work through that issue.”