Why Australian Religious Freedom Is Under Legal Threat

Religious Freedom in Australia is under immediate legal threat.

A new bill introduced into the Senate last week (due to be debated this Monday, December 3rd) will, if passed unamended, severely erode Religious Freedom in our land. Especially for religious schools.

A new bill introduced into the Senate last week will, if passed unamended, severely erode Religious Freedom in our land. Especially for religious schools.

As Neil Foster, Associate Professor of Law at Newcastle University, writes:

Senator Wong, leader of the Opposition in the Senate, has introduced a Private Senator’s Bill aimed at removing the power of religious schools to discriminate against same sex attracted students. Unfortunately, the amendments do much more than stop schools expelling students on the basis of their internal sexual orientation (a goal all sides of politics agree on.) They will have a serious impact on the ability of such schools, and other religious bodies, to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Cultural Pressure Is Now Becoming Legal Pressure

As we’ve discussed before on this website, cultural pressure and suspicion against religious freedom has been building. The recent leaked recommendations from the Ruddock report generated a great deal of outrage, in both social and mainstream media.

In particular, any suggestion that religious schools have the ability to ‘discriminate’ against LGBTI staff and students was met with fierce condemnation. Civil public discussion around this issue has been difficult, if not impossible, under such conditions.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that cultural pressure is now threatening to become legal pressure.

What Do Australians Stand To Lose?

On the face of it, the bill has the commendable aim of stopping schools from expelling students only on the basis of their personal sexual orientation. That is not the issue which concerns us.[1]

The danger of the bill is the breadth of its possible application.

Associate Professor Neil Foster shows how an expansive interpretation of ‘indirect’ discrimination ‘may have very wide-reaching consequences’. The provisions of the proposed bill ‘are not limited to ‘educational institutions’ but apply to every ‘body established for religious purposes’, which of course will include churches’ (emphasis in original).

The provisions of the proposed bill are not limited to ‘educational institutions but apply to every body established for religious purposes … The provisions of this bill could be ‘weaponised’ to punish Christians for being Christian.

And the activity which the bill seeks to regulate is defined broadly as ‘education,’ which ‘might cover, unless somehow other constrained, teaching the Bible in Sunday Schools, in small Bible study groups, and presumably in churches, mosques and synagogues in their public meetings.’

And Mark Sneddon from the Institute for Civil Society writes:

‘The Bill would remove or limit the current exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act so that religious schools, colleges [including theological colleges] and religious bodies will be subject to anti-discrimination complaints and lawsuits when they teach or set behavioural standards which are contrary to secular liberal views on sexual relations and gender identity.’

Basically, if this bill is legislated and given a wide-ranging interpretation, anyone who instructs anyone in traditional Christian sexual morality could, conceivably, be charged for causing ‘indirect discrimination’ through their ‘education’. The provisions of this bill could be ‘weaponised’ to punish Christians for upholding Christian teaching on sexuality. (And as the owners of Coopers Brewery, and wedding magazine White found out firsthand, many activists are eager to punish those perceived to hold—let alone promote—Christian views of sexuality).

So What Should Christians Do?

While we should be concerned by such proposed legislation, let us not be alarmist. As far as we can tell, the purpose of the bill is not to repress religious freedom and victimise religious people. But there is a real possibility that this bill could permit, as an unintended consequence, this kind of repression and victimisation.

As such, Christians can do the following to help protect religious freedom, especially for religious schools:

  1. Commit this matter to prayer, that the bill would not pass (at least not unamended), so that religious freedom for all Australians remains protected; [2]
  2. Contact your local Federal MP, and the Senators in your State/Territory as soon as possible—ideally Monday morning, December 3rd (the bill will be debated that afternoon).[3] Politely raise these concerns with them. Highlight that we agree that a student should not be expelled from school purely for their personal sexual orientation. Our concern is the possible censorious implications of the bill as it now stands—implications which are unintended, but real, and not good for a free, just, tolerant, pluralistic society.[4]

Jesus Is Lord, And So We Love Our Neighbour

Regardless of what happens with the bill, Christians have no reason to fear. Jesus Christ is Lord, ruling the world according to His good plans and purposes (Matt 28:18). And yet, Christians are called to love our neighbour—be they Christian or non-Christian (Gal 6:10). One important way is by raising our voice to uphold our neighbour’s basic freedoms—including their religious freedom. For if these basic freedoms are weakened then—as history demonstrates—people become vulnerable to various forms of injustice.

 

 


[1] Portions of this article are based on the NSW Presbyterian Church Moderator’s Pastoral Letter of 30 Nov by Kamal Weerakoon. Used with permission.

[2] According to Christian Schools Australia (email of 30th November), “The [Morrison] government is proposing amendments to the Bill which provide some important clarifications and certainty for Christian schools. The Government amendments would ensure that it is clear that faith based schools can continue to teach… ‘in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed’. While by no means an ideal solution these amendments do provide a level of certainty and clarity in relation to the key concerns we have been raising.” [emphasis in original].

[3] The contact details for all Senators can be found here ; For local MP’s, click here.

[4] By way of example, Christian Schools Australia have sample lettersyou could use in corresponding with Senators and MPs here . They particularly address the concerns of religious schools.

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