Reflecting on the Release of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review (TGCA Council)

The Gospel Coalition Australia Council welcomes the release of the report of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review.

We hope that the Expert Panel’s report will contribute to courteous conversation around this important but increasingly contested human right.

The Importance of Religious Freedom

As Christians, we believe religious freedom to be a bedrock freedom. Being creatures made in God’s image, our religious beliefs – what we believe about God, ourselves and our world – are deep-seated and fundamental to our identity individually and communally. Being free to express those beliefs in word and practice is essential to personal and communal integrity, a freedom inseparable from our being human. Historically, this has meant freedom from undue state coercion in determining acceptable religious belief and practice, both as individuals and as communities of faith (whatever one’s religion).

As religious belief or spirituality is a common aspect of human experience, not just Christian experience, and is manifested in our society in diverse ways, religious freedom contributes to the peace and harmony of our pluralistic society.

However, if the state determines what religions are free to operate in public, it runs the risk of splintering our communities and alienating minorities. Thus in our current pluralistic society, religious freedom helps us be good neighbours across disagreements and protects our community.

Religious Freedom has Benefited All of Society

The freedom for religious people, including Christians, to put religious belief into practice is not simply required for individuals to flourish, but has historically enabled the flourishing of our society. Religious belief commonly motivates people towards love, compassion, and charity, as seen by the many charities, hospitals, and adoption agencies operated by people of faith.

While much of the public debate has regrettably been about the freedom to exclude or discriminate, the Christian ethic is one of radical love for those we disagree with, a call to see others as neighbours not enemies. To hold and practice such a faith is a profoundly public matter, not simply a private conviction. Thus religious freedom is not first about the freedom to discriminate, but rather, about the freedom to pursue convictions from the belief that they are good, true, and loving.

Religious Freedom and Discrimination

Nevertheless, we recognise that in an increasingly secular, pluralist, and post-Christian Australia, many of our fellow non-religious citizens may wonder about the importance of religious faith. Recent public conversation has focused on the relationship between religious freedom and freedom from discrimination. Such conversation has interpreted religious freedom through the lens of freedom from discrimination. Thus concerns were raised about current laws, which allow religious schools to ‘discriminate’ on the basis of sexuality. While we sympathise with these concerns, we believe they are based on a misunderstanding of religious freedom, and its cognate freedom, freedom of association.

That is, should voluntary associations – be they Greenpeace or the local Christian school – be free to employ staff who believe and live their ethos, both publicly and privately? Should Greenpeace be forced to hire an office worker who happily signs off on its public mission, but privately undertakes activities (e.g. recreational hunting) that compromise its mission? Or should voluntary organisations like Greenpeace (and Christian schools) be free to hire only people who believe and live according to their respective ethos?

In a democratic, diverse and free country like Australia, we believe in a confident pluralism where individuals and voluntary organisations – religious or otherwise – should be free to associate as they see fit. We Christians believe Governments are given authority by God, and we are called to submit to, and pray for, those in authority. Yet we also believe as part of the separation of church and state that Government oversteps its authority when it dictates to religious communities how they should practise their beliefs, including employment practices.  Thus, religious freedom should be viewed more comprehensively than simply through the lens of anti-discrimination legislation.

We acknowledge that discussions over rights are never simple, and different rights can sometimes come into conflict with one another. This needs to be acknowledged and discussed, rather than one right being seen as primary, as appears to be the case with the right to freedom from discrimination in our current context.

Concern over Media Discussion Around Religious Freedom

We are concerned by the way this conversation has been handled by the media thus far. Much of the reporting around this issue was needlessly inflammatory, reinforcing stereotypes and minimising nuance. We hope that the release of this report will allow for serious, more nuanced discussion.

A Possible Way Ahead

We observe that the current conflict over religious freedom has arisen because the exemptions currently in place are seen as concessions to people of faith from otherwise applicable law. We suggest that a better course is to have a clear commitment to religious freedom as a positive right, while continuing to articulate how this right impacts laws forbidding discrimination.

We believe a possible way to do this would be to codify religious freedom – as articulated in Article 18 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – into Commonwealth law. Australia is a signatory to this international convention and has formally ratified it. Thus, incorporating it into Australian law would seem worthy of consideration. This would be a positive statement of religious freedom, and be a step away from the current practice of merely relying on the current system of exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

We Trust in God, While Advocating for Our Neighbour

Finally, as Christians we believe that whatever happens to religious freedom, our God is sovereign, working all things according to His good and perfect plan. A lack of religious freedom will have negative consequences for all people, but we are convinced nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39). Therefore we do not fear, but pray in faith.

Nevertheless, out of love for our neighbours – be they Christian or non-Christian – we graciously strive to speak up and advocate for the common good, including religious freedom for all citizens of Australia.

We hope and pray religious freedom would be upheld in our diverse multi-faith society, for the good of all.