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Religious freedom one of many contested political values: human rights commissioner

NEWS | Tess Holgate

Friday 25 September 2015 

The right to religious freedom is only one of a handful of intertwined and contested political values, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson told a conference in Newcastle, NSW, today.

In his keynote speech to the Religious Freedom in a Multicultural World conference, he said religious freedom would never be resolved without navigating through the muddy waters of other political values.

Religious freedom was a contested space, not least because “rights sit in a basket of contested political values, including rights, freedoms, responsibilities, fairness and justice,” he said.

The conference, jointly hosted by the University of Newcastle Law School and Freedom 4 Faith, a Christian organisation that promotes freedom of religion and belief in Australia, drew about 100 people to discuss the question of how to think about and express religious freedom in a multicultural world.

“In a pluralistic society, we would never say that any group should leave a component of their identity at their front door. But this is too often the expectation of those of faith, particularly of some faiths.”

“Religious freedom is central to the Australian way of life,” Commissioner Wilson said. “And [that freedom] shapes our sense of purpose in our lives.”

“But religious freedom is generally maligned outside houses of worship, largely thanks to secularism.

The perceived role and place of religious freedom is mixed. We can no longer rest on the laurels of a world where religion is the most powerful force outside the government. Those days are past.”

However, Commissioner Wilson said he was “utterly unconvinced” that we are entering a post-God world.

“Not all morality comes from religion,” he said. “But there is a legacy of religion informing public opinion on morality.

“Religion should hold a legitimate position in public life. People shouldn’t be afraid to use their faith to inform their conduct, as long as they respect the freedoms of others.

“But in a pluralistic society, we would never say that any group should leave a component of their identity at their front door. But this is too often the expectation of those of faith, particularly of some faiths.”

Commissioner Wilson said if we seek to advance religious freedom in our society, then we must seek to advance the rights of others.

“Freedom should never be used to curtail the freedoms of others,” he said. “Religious freedom is built on an understanding of mutual respect.”

Building on this important foundation, a number of papers were presented discussing the implications of religious freedom across a spectrum of beliefs and activities.

Presenting a paper on the Bible’s account of freedom and truth, Rev. Dr. Peter Jensen, former Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, said the text “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32) shows us that our freedom is to be lived in community for the community.

Dr. Renae Barker from the University of Western Australia School of Law presented a paper on the issues of religious freedom facing Muslim women in Australia. She focused on the famed “burka ban,” arguing that the media and public discourse unfairly maligns our Muslim neighbours, damaging their social liberty and dignity.

Dr. Greg Walsh from the University of Notre Dame in Sydney suggested that current laws protecting religious freedom in NSW schools were an “over-reach,” and that sooner or later there would be a challenge that would promote reform.

Associate Professor Neil Foster from the Newcastle Law School discussed the implications for religious marriage celebrants should same sex marriage be legalised in Australia. He said Christians should not necessarily rush to withdraw from the system and institution of marriage.

The conference asked participants to consider if, instead of gathering a collection of exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation, they could get together to promote and defend the goodness and beauty of religious freedom in a pluralistic and multicultural society.

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