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A fine line between tolerance and freedom

  • 23 March 2018


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.

Does 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