“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Corinthians 4:4)
Last Friday Freedom for Faith held a one day Conference in Melbourne, considering the topic, ‘Religious freedom in an age of equality.’
The Conference was attended by academics, lawyers, politicians, pastors, and keen observers from the community. The event was also covered by the media, largely due to the fact that one of the two keynote speakers is the Federal Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus.
The list of speakers was outstanding, including several of the nation’s most respected legal minds: Prof. Patrick Parkinson, Father Frank Brennan, Prof. Iain Benson, Prof. Patrick Quirk, Sophie York, and Mark Sneddon. It is worth noting that those who shared the platform are not uniform in their theology or political views; this was no campaign event. Rather we engaged with robust and reasoned presentations on law and society, from these notable teachers and practitioners from across Australia.
I appreciated how the Conference cut through the thick web of pop-rhetoric that so often dominates the public space, and explored in depth many of the legal and social implications arising from current debates in Australia, especially in relation to marriage, safe schools, and Victoria’s ‘inherent requirements’ test.
Freedom For Faith’s Executive Director, Michael Kellahan, gave this apt summary of the Conference’s aim:
…we keep being told a debate on same sex marriage is beyond the maturity of the Australian people and would be too harmful. Our conference was a humble attempt to show different positions can be put respectfully and that the terms of debate need to be both broader and deeper than we are hearing. We were privileged to have Australia’s leading law and religion experts present. There are genuine concerns on both sides that need to be heard and understood. At issue is whether we find ways to live together despite very different and basic beliefs around gender, marriage and harm. The chilling alternative is a zero sum gain power politic where the state coercively enforces one set of beliefs around gender
In my view, this was well achieved.
I valued the opportunity to hear a senior member of the Labor Party explain his case for same-sex marriage and concerns about the proposed plebiscite. We often rely on personal tweets and media sound bites to decipher what our political leaders really think, and so it was worthwhile listening to the lengthy exposition from Mark Dreyfus.
While it was useful to grapple with Mr Dreyfus’ views, it felt as though he was speaking to the television cameras rather than to the audience who was present, and he came across as though he had not been properly briefed on the issues surrounding the marriage debate. At one point Mr Dreyfus challenged the room to demonstrate that changing the Marriage Act would impact religious freedom in Australia (he believes that there won’t be negative consequences). If I learned one thing on Friday, and that is, never challenge a room full of lawyers! There were no shortage of examples offered from the floor, from both overseas where same-sex marriage has been legalised, and from Australia where organisations are already clamping down on those who don’t support SSM. As one speaker remarked, Mr Dreyfus’ own Party will no longer endorse candidates who don’t support the redefinition of marriage. This Labor policy was tested earlier in the year, when Senator Joe Bullock was forced to retire because of his Party’s unwillingness to allow a conscience vote on marriage.
It is not possible to mention all of the topics that were discussed, all which deserve attention, but these two recurring themes stood out to me: identity and conscience.
In several lectures it was demonstrated how the socio-political mood of Australia right now is one where sexuality trumps religion, as though sexual identity is a more basic and inherent attribute of a person than their religious identity. From an existential point of view this may occasionally be true, when sexual preferences become the most important driver in life, but in that sense, sexuality becomes a pseudo-religion.
However, many Muslims and Hindus are unlikely to share this auxiliary view of religious identity. Indeed, Christianity teaches that our union with Christ and adoption into God’s household is the most important defining feature of our personhood; more inherent than sexuality, family heritage, and cultural milieu.
Freedom of conscience is an essential ingredient for a successful liberal democracy, but there are signs of intrusion by Government authorities: the proposed amendments to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act was one cited example.
Mark Dreyfus and others rightly commented how a civil society will always hold some tension between competing interests, and the law must try to balance and protect these; indeed, it is no small task. However, recent shifts in political thought make freedom of conscience and religion less certain, despite the fact that they given sanctuary under Section 116 of the Australian Constitution. Let’s be clear, Australia is a long off from reaching the world of 1984, but is it not wise to be alerted to the early warning signs and to remonstrate these?
Freedom For Faith Melbourne, offered serious arguments on important national conversations. As Christians, our engagement on these issues is important for they are an expression of loving our neighbours.
I commend listening to the talks when they become available online at https://freedomforfaith.org.au/