National conversation about freedom of religion set for November

NEWS | Tess Holgate
Thursday 3 September 2015

A new roundtable is set to put a spotlight on religious freedom in Australia, intended to spark a discussion that many commentators say is long overdue.

This November will see the Human Rights Commission convene their first religious freedom roundtable, with the aim of “stimulating much needed dialogue on exercising religious freedom in 21st century Australia,” said Commissioner Tim Wilson in a press release.

“Religious freedom is not only central to human rights, it is inextricable from other fundamental freedoms such as freedom of thought, conscience, speech and association, as well as property rights. But religious freedom cannot be unlimited. It has to be exercised with a respect and mindfulness of the rights of others such as equality before the law and government, and the freedoms of those without faith,” said Wilson.

In a speech for University of Notre Dame last year, Senator George Brandis wrote, “one of the fundamental freedoms of which we have heard far too little when we speak about human rights is the right to religious freedom. In fact, not only has religious freedom been neglected; it has actually been the subject of open attack from those who dominate much of our political discourse.”

In his speech, Senator Brandis explored the connections between the liberal view of society and traditional Christian theology, concluding that the former is a direct product of the latter.

Tim Wilson at the National Press Club. Credit: Australian Human Rights Commission.

Tim Wilson at the National Press Club. Credit: Australian Human Rights Commission.

“Religious belief is central to the human condition. Faith provides a means to help people that cannot be explained, even though it might be apprehended. It can also enable us to see ourselves as part of something larger, and thereby free ourselves from our base, everyday selfish concerns. Faith also has a unique ability to provide consolation in the face of life’s vicissitudes and to help us cope with its hardship,” says Senator Brandis.

“The Australia we know today is home to a diversity of faiths, united by tolerance, mutual respect and a commitment to democracy. Australians are free to choose their religion, and are able to practice their beliefs without intimidation and without interference, within the framework of Australian law and any attempt to interfere with that freedom is a profound outrage against our nation.”

Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby says the roundtable is a positive move. “Tim Wilson is showing tremendous goodwill in wanting to address issues of religious freedom in Australia. I appreciate his desire to ensure there is religious freedom in this country.”

Shelton says the issue of religious freedom is most pronounced where there is a clash of rights. “Certain rights can come into conflict with the very important right of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. I don’t think we’ve worked out how to adequately address this.”

These competing rights make resolution “very difficult,” says Shelton. “The political debate at the moment is that if you don’t support people’s right to sexual expression, then somehow you are bigoted. While the debate remains framed like that, then it’s going to be very difficult [to find a resolution].

“Until we see a change in the way that this debate is conducted, I think the logical extrapolation is that it’s going to be hard for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.”

Shelton wants to see a renewed emphasis on human rights as explained in the United Nations charter. “We’ve got to see the principles of the UN applied. That is, that religious freedom and freedom of conscience are a higher right that the right of sexual expression.”

Gordon Preece, director of the Ethos EA Centre for Christianity and Society thinks of it more as a balancing act, saying, “the balancing of religious freedom, which is a fundamental freedom, with things like sexual freedom is really important, and requires a lot of fine tuning.”

Preece is not naïve about the challenges to religious freedom in Australia, suggesting that one of our biggest challenges is figuring out how to make space in a secular society for both those who see religious freedom as an ultimate and fundamental freedom, and those who see sexual freedom as ultimate.

“It’s a big challenge for our society because sexual freedom is seen as an identity issue rather than just a behavioural issue. And then it lays claims on ultimate position. When it does that, that’s when you really get the clash with religious freedom because it will not book any competitors.”

This clash of freedoms is not going to be resolved with one sit-down at a roundtable.

“I think it’s going to be an ongoing conversation, over time. There are some major philosophical and worldview clashes which may not be able to be completely resolved – at the level of worldview – but may be able to be accommodated with compromises that allow for various groups to still have a sense of maintaining their integrity.”

Preece admits that finding and agreeing on such compromises will take a lot of grace and good listening – something that social media, and even mass media is not very good at doing.

“I think it’s important to try and develop non-adversarial forums that are face-to-face and allow the humanity of all parties to come through,” says Preece.

The challenges to religious freedom aren’t stopping any time soon. “In Victoria,” Preece says, “the Greens are proposing a bill that would drop religious exemptions in relationship to employment of practising gays in schools.”

“So [the roundtable discussion] is a good thing, and it’s good that Tim Wilson is proposing it. I think it’s helpful that this is coming to light now.”

The Human Rights Commission is calling for submissions from faith-based and other interest groups. Submissions close September 25.

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