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A fine line between tolerance and freedom



I initially thought the inquiry into religious freedom would not be of great concern to most Australians. How wrong I was: the review panel has received over 16,000 submissions. On issues such as this fundamental human right, the waters run deep in the Australian consciousness.

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM is a member of the expert panel examining whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. AHRC/FlickrDoes Australian law adequately provide for the freedom to practice the religion of one's choice, balancing this with other rights such as that to be treated without discrimination?

The issue I suspect becomes more important the more socially and economically marginalised one is. Not coincidentally, these are the groups of people that are least able to effect change in the Australian political process.

It is also worth noting that popular intolerance of one or other religion does not necessarily equate with the breach of one's right to practice it, although, at an extreme, it can certainly lead to it.

In the thinking of theologian, William Cavanaugh, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, made towards the end of the European Wars of Religion, laid the foundations of the separation of Church and State in the western world.

At the risk of over-simplification, the separation allowed secular sovereign governments to provide for security from external military threat and perform other 'external' functions, in return for religious practice being relegated to a more private 'space'.

The underlying myth is that the space for public debate on which most governments depend is 'value-neutral', or, in other words, enables objective assessments to be made, which becomes the foundation of all legislation. Religion, so the logic goes, is viewed as inherently emotional, unpredictable and potentially violent: it therefore must be contained.


"The Church, mosque or synagogue's direct contact with marginal groups through charitable works is what gives any critique they make of policy its credibility."


An obvious example is the tendency to remove religious symbols from the Christmas season in the pursuit of supposed neutrality between different religions whose adherents would otherwise be scandalised.

This neutrality in fact replaces the religious message with another set of values allowing the commercialisation of the festival to a degree that serves to place immense pressure on individuals, families and communities, many of whom cannot afford the trappings seen as necessary for such a celebration.

This exclusionary process forms the polar opposite of what the religious festival aspires to.

Two 20th century developments are disrupting the accommodation between church and state. The first is the growth of the concept of security to include economic and social wellbeing and matters of cultural and other identity.

This enables, for example, government to argue for the prevention of many more refugees entering Australia, from the point of view of the threat they pose to national and cultural identities.

Secondly, religious practice has rediscovered part of its expression in the public space, through the foundation and growth of charitable 'works of justice'. The Church, mosque or synagogue's direct contact with marginal groups through such works is what gives any critique they make of policy its credibility. It has also set the stage for potentially greater conflict with policy-makers.

The requirements for faith based service providers receiving government funding to express support for, or withhold potential criticism of, government policy is a result of this clash. This is a delicate balance to hold — a good starting point would be a better appreciation of the contribution of such faith based agencies to the overall public good.

It is perhaps ironic that United Nations institutions are increasingly acknowledging the vital role of faith based institutions in the response to disasters and the most difficult situations necessitating humanitarian response, at a time when one senses Australian faith based organisations are increasingly denigrated.

To my knowledge Australian legislation has avoided the extremes experienced in Canada, where organisational participants in the summer holiday program are expected publicly to endorse a range of government policies that may be at variance from their own values.

The corollary is the requirement of faith based agencies not to discriminate in employment or, in the case of schools, enrolment practices. Employers should be able to recruit for a cultural fit with the organisation in my view, but this cannot extend to discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, or membership of a particular social or political group or religion.

It is a delicate balance to uphold, but one that a strong faith base should grapple with rather than shrink from.

The most systemic attack on religious practice lies far away from polemical debates or recruitment practices. It consists of multiple labour practices that effectively prohibit one from attending religious worship of any kind, something that hits people who hold down multiple jobs or who carry out shift work just to get by, mostly in the service sectors.

This area is also the most difficult to remedy. It is significant that the New Zealand seasonal worker visa requires prospective employers to cater for the religious practices of their workers. I know of no such attendant requirement in the regulations around for example temporary visas in Australia.

As Australia moves to a post-Christian state, there are numerous tendencies to see limits on the expression of religion as some kind of necessity. But religions remain legitimate voices in the political process and life of the community, and the space that permits the hearing of these voices is one of the marks of a healthy democracy.

We are at the point where greater constitutional or legislative coverage of this and other rights is needed for the benefit of Australian society as a whole.



writerAustralian Jesuit Fr David Holdcroft is higher education specialist for Jesuit Refugee Service International.

Main image: Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM is a member of the expert panel examining whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. AHRC/Flickr

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, religious freedom



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Existing comments

The Australian Government tolerates the annexation of West Papua by Indonesia, effectively supporting the loss of freedom of the3 oppressed West Papuans. The Brisbane Catholic Justice and Peace Commission has been calling on the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses in West Papua, after CJPC executive officer Peter Arndt and human rights advocate Josephite Sister Susan Connelly released a report documenting military and police intimidation, beatings and torture, kidnapping and murder in West Papua. I ask people of good will to engage in political advocacy for our near neighbours, the West Papuans. The standard we walk by is the standard we accept!

Grant Allen | 23 March 2018  

“But religions remain legitimate voices in the political process and life of the community….” Only because atheism/secularism is a quasi-religion, relying also on premises that the scientific method is unable to prove. So, why should its unproved principle of value neutrality command any preferment in the public square except, like the soft totalitarianism of Canadian political correctness, as a social (re)engineering impost?

Roy Chen Yee | 24 March 2018  

David thank you for a well balanced assessment of what all societies require in order to operate in a tolerant balanced fashion.

David Dignam | 26 March 2018  

Australia remains overwhelmingly Christian. There are many other religions in Australia plus a growing number of agnostics and athiests. Some athiests want to derail Christian celebrations, as do, perhaps, some fundamentalist religious people. How can we achieve the freedom for all religions to adhere to their holy days with the respect that is their due?

Anna | 26 March 2018  

Thank you Fr David for a terrific article outlining the balance that any healthy society needs in order to be able to function effectively. As a prime example ... in my 2016 MA (Theol) research: an ecological-feminist approach to death, dying & euthanasia - it became very clear that historically, an imbalance of religiosity or secularity in previous societies generated a call and response for euthanasia. Just look at Victoria ... and other Australian states to see it in action!

Mary Tehan | 26 March 2018  

'SSM religious freedom review sparks flood of submissions' was how The Australian reported this matter. 'Unprecedented' was how the PM described the level of response. Wow! It doesn't take much to attract the superlative these days. And yes, we will, after all, be able to access all the written submissions, or at least those from submitters who consent to their submission being made public. But the face to face meetings of the panel with 'stakeholders' will be in secret and unrecorded. Why? So as to 'give people an opportunity to share their views openly and honestly ... in a respectful and safe environment' according to a PMC spokesperson. But not so that the rest of us could hear what those views were? Eventually we may see the report of the panel. I say 'may' because it's actually a report to government and it will be up to government to decide whether and how much we 'may' be permitted to see. So what happened to transparent process and open and accountable government?

Ginger Meggs | 26 March 2018  

A "flood of submissions"...? Forgive my scepticism but what really happened was that the still furious opponents of SSM came out in force. The groups to which these people belong claim total 'memberships' of well over 100,000 and my guess is that a fair proportion of the so called submissions repeated parrot fashion the misinformation and misrepresentation that we saw from the NO campaign. And this is very sad because of course as this article argues the issue deserves to be taken seriously not seen as some kind of warfare between rainbow warriors and the forces of good that belongs at best in a second rate movie. As for open and transparent government i agree entirely with Ginger Meggs but frankly we get the government that we deserve.

Margaret | 26 March 2018  

Been reading the very excellent but difficult to read 'Religion and the rise of capitalism' by R.H. Tawney, which tracks the change in religious philosophy from the medieval period to the 19th Century. How changes in religious philosophy, the sin of extortion such the charging of interest not being a sin, and gradual ceasing of protestant religions examining business morality around the 16th century. 'Religion is one thing. Business is another'. I have had a lot to do with fundamental Christians and political correct (PC) types not so much Catholics. What struck was the section of book described Luther effect on religious philosophy which was what you believed was important not your good works because you would do good works if you just believed the correct values. It dawned me that this reminded me of political correctness because they were like the fundamental Christians as they focused on people believing a core set of values not what people did. Unfortunately because political correct see their values as non religious and 'supposedly' based on science they don't see that the separations between religion and state applies to them. ( which is why the 'so call' left is behaving the way it is in Canada.)

Ceelly | 26 March 2018  

Among all the hype and handwringing this sober and considered article from The Conversation might at least clarify the question and the current state of play and help us to focus on the real issue which is the subject of Ruddock's review < https://theconversation.com/the-gay-wedding-cake-dilemma-when-religious-freedom-and-lgbti-rights-intersect-93070 >

Ginger Meggs | 27 March 2018  

I was baffled by your comment Roy so I went researching to try to inform myself. I'm still none the wiser. What on earth is the 'soft totalitarianism of Canadian political correctness' and what in heaven's name does it have to do with this review?

Ginger Meggs | 28 March 2018  

Thanks, Ginger Meggs. Start here: “To my knowledge Australian legislation has avoided the extremes experienced in Canada, where organisational participants in the summer holiday program are expected publicly to endorse a range of government policies that may be at variance from their own values.” And look up Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto.

Roy Chen Yee | 28 March 2018  

The review panel is happy to tell us that they have received over 16,000 submissions but won't publish the submissions. Surely the public has a right to consider the arguments that are put to a body charged with recommending public policy on a matter of human rights. This review was established to preempt the nasty debate that some wanted to pursue over religious exemptions in the legalisation of marriage equality. Without seeing the submissions, it is not unreasonable to assume that thousands of submissions on this issue are part of a last-ditch effort by proponents of the 'no' case to discriminate in other ways against LGBTQI people. The 'no' case was rejected by the electorate in the postal survey and the Panel should ensure that submissions they receive on religious freedom are available to the public.

Peter Johnstone | 29 March 2018  

OK Roy, I've now read up on Prof Peterson in Wikipedia and read a recent article at < https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/how-dangerous-is-jordan-b-peterson-the-rightwing-professor-who-hit-a-hornets-nest >. He described himself as a 'classic English Liberal', he is a crusader against any compulsion to use gender-neutral pronouns, he doesn't like and rails against neo-Marxists and others from the Left, he holds very strongly to certain points of view which some others might, and do, think are OTT. Like the rest of us, he is, at least in part, a product of his upbringing and societal environment. Welcome to the tribe ! But what are you really trying to say about this current 'inquiry into religious freedom' (which is what this article is about) when you raise the spectre of "the soft totalitarianism of Canadian political correctness'? What do you fear might come out of this inquiry that will be in any way similar? Specifics please Roy, and argument to justify those concerns, too.

Ginger Meggs | 29 March 2018  

I think we need to consider how this inquiry into religious freedom came about. Largely, it was suggested by conservative politicians following the same sex marriage referendum to appease very narrow-minded fundamentalist Christians like Margaret Court who want to use their faith as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQI people. In no way did that referendum affect freedom of religion If these people were really interested in human rights, they would show concern about the rights of the West Papuans who face genocide because of the brutal occupation by the Indonesian military since 1962 as Grant Allen points out in his comment. They could also protest the thwarted attempt by our government to steal oil and gas resources from that 1/2 of the Timor Sea owned by Timor-Leste, the poorest nation in SE Asia that suffered under the jack boot of the Indonesian military for 24 years. Australia is a multicultural country with people of many ethnicities and life philosophies. To make this work, we need to strive for respect, social justice and human rights for all no matter what ethnicity or gender we are, what personal philosophy we follow or what our gender preference is. Australia urgently needs to adopt a caring and compassionate outlook on life.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 30 March 2018  

Last Friday - Good Friday - the Victorian Legislative Council sat. Two opposition members had objected to sitting on Good Friday on religious grounds. The government, in good faith, granted them a pair so that they could be absent from the chamber without affecting the balance of votes. So far, so good. Religious sensitivities recognised and relief facilitated. But when the motion was put, these two pious and devout members suddenly appeared in the chamber. The pairs that had been granted had not been warned and so were not present and the government's motion was lost. Clever politics? Perhaps. Shifty politics? You decide. But when people seek special exemptions on religious grounds, are granted them, and then abuse them, is it any wonder that the heathen develop a somewhat jaundiced view of special pleadings for the protection of 'religious freedom'?

Ginger Meggs | 31 March 2018  

Ginger Meggs: “But when people seek special exemptions on religious grounds, are granted them, and then abuse them, is it any wonder that the heathen develop a somewhat jaundiced view of special pleadings for the protection of 'religious freedom'?” Parliament is not a tool for the Executive to rort. The Government refused a pair to an ill Rachel Carling-Jenkins who, if she had been in the Chamber without the other two pairs being given, would have seen the Government lose 20-20. There was no need to schedule the third reading on what was known to be a very controversial bill 5 hours before a day well-established in the community to be significant. Perhaps they should have scheduled debate for five hours before Anzac Day? The Government sought to pull a Whitlam-Gair stunt but the Liberals hit that tampered ball for a six with its own equivalent of a Bjelke-Petersen/Night of the Long Prawns. By late morning, both Finn and Ondarchie, having defeated the Left Government’s misuse of the Parliament, could in good faith be immersed in their respective Good Friday obligations.

Roy Chen Yee | 11 April 2018  

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