Religious freedom the problem that isn’t going away

By James Allen

“If we are to let go of our Judeo-Christian values, as some parties are pushing for us to do, we do so at our own peril,” Conservative Senate candidate Lyle Shelton says. “This is the most important election of this generation, or perhaps even the nation has ever seen.”

In the last two months, Christchurch’s Mosque-shootings, Israel Folau’s Instagram account, and SBS reality shows such as Christians Like Us have been main features of the media. Religion and how it is expressed is strongly in the nation’s consciousness. Yet no mention has been made by either of the two leaders looking to lead the country in the coming weeks. It has been minor parties who have been most vocal about this issue.

Shelton became known in his role as managing director at the Australian Christian Lobby, leading the unsuccessful ‘No Campaign’ during the Same-Sex Marriage plebiscite. Since resigning after the campaign, Mr Shelton joined Cory Bernardi’s Conservative Party to be a stable place for conservative voters. “We don’t want to be like other parties, with orange hair, big hats or yellow signs!” he says.

The Party began after Mr Bernardi left the Liberal Party during the Turnbull Government. He believed that it no longer represented conservative beliefs that it was founded upon, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. These issues are what concern Mr Shelton most. “We are in big trouble,” he said. “I try not to be melodramatic, but that’s just the state we are now in. If the wrong government gets in, you can say goodbye to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

Concern for the ability of Australians to express their beliefs and faith publicly was noted by Shelton and religious communities during the Same-Sex Marriage debate. And Mr Shelton said it was seen as the biggest cause of change regarding people’s right to freedom of religion. Mr Shelton warned that the Bill would not only effect marriage, but religious schools, churches and businesses. This concern was often compared to the “gay-cake discrimination cake” in Northern Ireland. And was met with backlash from the Labor Party.

The open-letter written to Mr Shelton, during the plebiscite, argued that freedom of religion was being used as a smokescreen to stop the Same-Sex Marriage bill being passed. “Whilst religious freedom is currently protected by exemptions, religious freedom should not be considered as a concession, or some kind of special pleading,” the letter says.  However, responses like these only support Mr Shelton’s claim that the freedom for Aussies to express their beliefs freely is under threat. 60% of Australians identify as religious, with a declining 52% claiming to be Christian and 8% from other faiths. This makes religion a major feature that remains in cultural life.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in April that he would only begin to apply planned initiatives to protect freedom of religion after the election. These initiatives came directly from the Ruddock Report. It was a survey in which a panel asked the public if they had been discriminated against for their religious belief. The Coalition has affirmed the concerns raised by the report.  “The Australian Government accepts the central conclusion of the Religious Freedom Review, that there is an opportunity to further protect, and better promote and balance, the right to freedom of religion under Australian law and in the public sphere,” the report says.

The report was a direct response to those concerned that after the plebiscite that religious groups would be targeted in legal cases and discriminated against. The Ruddock Report advised how Australia would continue to maintain its human rights obligation of freedom of religion. Research conducted by the panel showed that areas with the highest amount of religious discrimination were Victoria with 42 complaints, followed by the Northern Territory with 31 complaints.  The report also noted that very few of the recorded complaints involved same-sex marriage. Neither was their noticeable increase of complaints after the Bill was passed.

Source: The Ruddock Report 2018

The Ruddock Report gave recommendations that the Government should apply new laws so that any religious groups or persons with an affiliation with the groups should be free from legal accusations by all states and territories removing common law offences of blasphemy. This means that a member or organisation that is affiliated with a religious group cannot be convicted for discrimination by not affirming another religion or people group, such as LGBTQI+. Although this recommendation has not fully come into effect, it provides potential hope for those wanting to hold views that are considered unpopular without facing legal charges. This recommendation has not come without opposition.

Greens leader Richard Di Natali says these types of legal protections only ensure that discrimination will occur, unchecked and unpunished. “It’s hard to believe, but there are people in this place who simply haven’t got the message: we are a nation that is committed to the principles of equality, and we won’t stand for discrimination in whatever form that takes,” he told the Senate last year.

During their recent campaigns both Mr Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten attended Easter church services. Mr Morrison at his home-church Horizon, the loud, bright and expressive service in south Sydney. Mr Shorten attended a more conservative service at St. Andrew’s Anglican church in Brisbane. Both leaders allowed media to record their Easter celebrations, showing that both of them approved of the ability for people to attend their own place of worship. It also signalled the criticism given to many politicians, that church attendance is a cultural requirement for being the nation’s leader.  This criticism naturally flows from within the secular community, of whom 40% of Australians consider themselves to be.

Harris Sultan is the Victoria candidate for the Secular Party of Australia. The ex-Muslim Pakistani immigrant said he has noticed the disconnect caused when leaders are obligated to have affiliations with a religious group. “When we see politicians being pressured to be part of the religion it shows that the Church still has a major foothold in our government, one that it shouldn’t if we are truly a secular society,” he told me with a fiery tone. “Religion has this way of crawling back into public life.”

Harris Sultan: “Religion has this way of crawling back into public life.”
Photo by Unsplash

Mr Sultan says the secular community has not realised it is not being represented by any of the major parties. He says that he has atheist friends who vote LNP and Labor, however the problem arises as Australia’s political parties become more extreme. “Humanist values are under threat,” he says. “There are no Classical Liberal parties in Australia and therefore no political home for the secular community.”

The Secular Party of Australia does not intend to form a government but advise the leading party, and primarily separate church and government completely. Some of their key policies are to remove prayer during government meetings, remove tax exemptions from church-based charities and schools and to remove religious influenced within state schools. “Why should we preference Christianity in our government and schools when there are plenty of members and children that are either from another religion or secular?” Mr Sultan says. “It doesn’t make sense.” This also includes the favouring of Christian holidays, something recently challenged in the House of Representatives.

Another policy from the Secular Party is the complete affirming of freedom of speech and religion in Australia. “We believe that people have the right to say whatever they want,” Mr Sultan says. “Whether you’re Fraser Anning or the Green.” The Secular Party believes that freedom of belief has been the reason western nations have thrived. Mr Sultan says that the real shame is that for the secular communities more align with the left and yet our ideologies are now considered right. This means that those who want to have freedom of belief must lean to more conservative parties. This causes a strange unison.

The response for not only conservatives on this issue, but also classical liberals is the same. They sense that freedom of belief is no longer protected and ought to be; whether religious or not. Mr Sultan said that the goal for this Party is to unite minor parties together. Perhaps this would not be uniting on the basis of policies. Maybe they would be forced to unite of the basis of freedom.

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