I have devoted much of the past 5 years (I’m writing this in January 2013) to learning about, writing about, making submissions on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria and the Victorian Ad Hoc Interfaith Committee in relation to the issue of freedom of conscience, freedom of conscience. I am a member of the Board of the newly established Freedom 4 Faith (F4F) organisation supported by a number of denominational groupings – once the F4F website is up I will link to it. The driving force behind F4F is the Australian Christian Lobby, a number of very well  qualified academic lawyers and key church representatives who are all abreast of the key issues in relation to religious freedom. F4F has a Campaign Committee and will undertake an educational role as well as make submissions, appear at public hearings when invited, issue press releases, lobby politicians, etc.

I have arranged my articles in chronological order.

1. State of tension

State of tension was my first article trying to answer the question “what basis do Christians have for banding together to lobby governments in favour of Christian morality, Christian agendas? My thinking has matured since then. The article was published in Australian Presbyterian, June 2007 and may be found here (scroll down to p30).

2. Freedoms under threat

Freedoms under threat discusses the issues raised by Australian Human Rights Commission commissioning of a project entitled  Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century Project (FRB Project). The FRB Project led to the formation of a loose grouping of church, para-church persons and lawyers that developed the arguments which would be disseminated to a wide range of christian groups to facilitate their submissions. It was this grouping that eventually gave birth to Freedom 4 Faith. The article was published shortly after the announcement of the FRB Project in Australian Presbyterian, December 2008 and may be found here (scroll down to p30).

3 Here we stand

Here we stand was written at a time when a lot was going on. The FRB Project was well under way, there was an announcement by the Victorian Government to review the exception clauses in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995 which had the potential to drastically scale back the ability of religious institutions in Victoria, including faith-based schools, to order their affairs consistent with their religious beliefs and practices. Crowding in on all of this was the National Human Rights Consultation being run by a committee headed by Jesuit priest Frank Brennan. The article was published in Australian Presbyterian, June 2009 and may be found here (scroll down to p29).

4. Rights and wrongs

Rights and wrongs discusses the National Human Rights Consultation and its likely impact regarding a Charter of Rights for Australia as then perceived. The article was published in Australian Presbyterian, July 2009 and may be found here (scroll down to p25).

5. Freedom of conscience, thought and religion – but perhaps not in Victoria

Freedom of conscience, thought and religion – but perhaps not in Victoria discusses the Victorian Government’s plan to review the exception clauses in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995. The article was published in Online Opinion, 31st July 2009 and may be found here.

6. All of life

All of life was jointly written with Ben Saunders and was written in the context of the review of the religious exception clauses in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995 and reflects more broadly on Christian engagement in the public square on contentious issued in which Christians have a vital stake.The article was published in Australian Presbyterian, August 2009 and may be found here (scroll down to p26).

7. Slow ahead

Slow ahead discussed the Presbyterian Church of Victoria submission to the review of the exception clauses in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995 conducted by the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) of the Victorian parliament and the appearance of myself with Counsel, Peter Faris QC at the SARC public hearing and it also reported on the Attorney General’s bypassing of SARC with his own proposals to which I gave a favourable assessment. This assessment was later found to be much too charitable when it was discovered through my questioning of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke at the July 2010 Religion in the Public Square Colloquium. Under questioning she revealed that the Commission took a much less benign view of the Government’s proposed changes to the religious exceptions. This led to the Australian Christian Lobby’s State Director, Rob Ward, gaining an undertaking from the Coalition to remove the difficulty in the newly revised religious exception clauses, an undertaking that the Coalition honoured on coming  into Government (early 2011). The article was published in Australian Presbyterian, November 2009 and may be found here (scroll down to p28).

8. Talking it through

Talking it through was a report on the three day Religion in the Public Square Colloquium, one day of which was given over to the issue of religious freedom. The article was published in Australian Presbyterian, September 2010 and may be found here (scroll down to p25).

 

By the end of 2011 the move to introduce a Charter of Rights had been defeated, the Australian Multicultural Foundation’s report into the Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century Project turned into a document that largely supported our concerns while the religious exception clauses, as amended, in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 we can live with. There is no doubt the combined voice of the church to a considerable degree informed by the work of the predecessor to Freedom 4 Faith provided a vital contribution to these satisfactory outcomes.

At the time of writing this page (January 2013), attention is focussed on the exposure draft for a new Commonwealth law, The Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012, which is meant to be a consolidation of the existing anti-discrimination clauses in four current pieces of Federal legislation. The exposure draft is receiving considerable criticism. My own take on the exposure draft I can summarise in four brief points, not necessarily mentioning everything but enough to give the flavour of the thing and to enable you to  make your own assessment as the matter moves through the Parliament.

1. When originally announced we were advised the Government was looking to consolidate existing anti-discrimination law. What has transpired is a very radical and controversial expansion of Federal law – in the Ad Hoc Interfaith Committee submission we likened the Bill, with slight rhetorical flourish, to a secular version of the Spanish Inquisition with its extraordinary over reach into the private lives of Australian citizens.

2. Much critical comment in the media has centred on the extension of ‘unfavourable treatment’ constituting unlawful discrimination to include conduct that ‘offends’, ‘insults’ or intimidates’. Not even the removal of the reference to ‘offends’, ‘insults’ or intimidates’ is going to help much because the phrase ‘’unfavourable treatment’ is quite capable of bearing the meaning of ‘offends’, ‘insults’ or intimidates’! It’s worth remembering that under the Victorian religious vilification law that Catch the Fire Ministries ran foul of, vilification of another person on the grounds of religious belief means engaging “in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of that other person”, surely a more stringent test than merely to ‘offend’ or ‘insult’.

3. The next big problem with the Bill is the greatly expanded list of attributes upon which unlawful discrimination may be alleged (including new attributes like gender identity, marital or relationship status, religion, and sexual orientation) coupled with an expansion in the areas of public life to which the provisions of the Bill apply. Currently anti-discrimination legislation is limited to the conduct of persons possessing responsibility, power or authority in areas of public life such as employment, provision of services, including accommodation

Under the proposed Bill the areas of public life are very extensive. Indeed in listing areas of public life such as ‘membership and activities of clubs or member‑based associations’ (such as religious organisations), the listing of areas is preceded by the clause, “but are not limited to”! In other words, as the Bill stands, the current situation of limiting anti-discrimination to vertical relationships involving responsibility, authority or power would extend anti-discrimination law to the regulation of behaviour between all kinds of relationships, both horizontal as well as vertical, even permitting a person to allege discrimination on the basis of a particular attribute against his neighbour. Furthermore, the onus of proof shifts from the accuser to the accused. The old dictum, ‘innocent until proved guilty will no longer apply (not that it applied in the Catch the Fire case either).

4. In setting out the case for anti-discrimination law, the proposed Bill fails to adequately safeguard the ancient human rights to freedom of speech, conscience, religion and association. In this respect, the inclusion of ‘religious exception’ clauses is unsatisfactory. Indeed the Bill provides for a review of the exception clauses 3 years after the enactment of the Bill. Why, if not to be chipped away at?

More importantly, the use of the term ‘exception’ is inappropriate in respect of religion for it implies that an exception is being made for what might otherwise be referred to as unlawful discrimination. Religious ‘exceptions’ are not special concessions to placate religious interests – they give expression to fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech, conscience, religion, association and the rights of cultural minorities, highly valued and tenaciously held, and part of Australia’s international obligations.

Freedom for Faith’s own submission may be found here and is offered as it is a fine exposition of the kinds of issues of concern in the present climate when so called ‘equality’ concerns threaten to overwhelm and obliterate freedom of religion. Thankfully freedom of religion in Australia remains better supported than in many other nations such as the UK where it has been more compromised.