Churches confused on Human Rights Act


Frank BrennanLast year, I had the opportunity to take a bird's eye view of the nation, chairing the diverse committee charged with reporting back to government the community's thinking about human rights protection in Australia.

It is fashionable to claim discussion about an Australian human rights Act is just the concern of elites. Of the 35,000 people who sent submissions of any sort, 33,356 expressed a view for or against a human rights act, and 87 per cent of those who expressed a view were in support.

The majority of the 6000 persons who attended one of the 60 community roundtable discussions held the length and breadth of the country supported such an Act. The independent research resulting from a random telephone survey of 1200 persons turned up 57 per cent in support, 14 per cent unopposed, and 30 per cent undecided.

My committee recommended that the Australian Parliament enact a federal Human Rights Act.

Our recommendations have evoked diverse reactions in church circles. While Catholic bioethicist Nicholas Tonti-Filippini has described a Charter in the form recommended by my committee as 'a toothless tiger', Cardinal Pell has described our recommendations as a Trojan horse which 'will be used against religious schools, hospitals and charities by other people who don't like religious freedom and think it shouldn't be a human right'.

I doubt that the Australian public is much interested in a toothless tiger or a Trojan horse.

Over the years, I have often been involved in public advocacy of policy positions consistent with Catholic social teaching and with the Church's moral tradition. I don't claim that all bishops have agreed with my analysis as to how Church teaching is to be applied when making law or public policy, rather than how it is to be applied when simply enunciating what is moral or preferable behaviour for the individual wanting to live a good life.

This is the first time I've been on the other side of a public inquiry process, trying to respond to various Church voices putting sometimes contrary views on an issue of law or public policy. What were we to make of the varying formal positions on a Human Rights Act put forward by the governing bodies of the three major churches?

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) 'noted that much discussion has been about whether or not there should be a Charter of Rights. On that particular issue, the ACBC does not take a particular stand at this stage.'

The Anglican General Synod said: 'We support the enactment of human rights legislation because this has the potential to have a beneficial effect on government policy and the legislation and administration which give effect to that policy.'

The Uniting Church National Assembly submitted: 'The Uniting Church believes that a Human Rights Act, operating within Australia's system of open and democratic government, will provide greater protection for fundamental rights and freedoms, promote dignity, address disadvantage and exclusion, and help to create a 'human rights culture' in Australia.'

As if that was not confusing enough, Cardinal Pell expressed outright opposition to a Charter in any form. Moving beyond the neutral position of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne cooperated in activities with the Australian Christian Lobby before and after the release of our report.

The Lobby, which describes itself as 'a parachurch group', was opposed to a Human Rights Act in any form. For me and my committee members, it was difficult to get a handle on just who the Lobby represents.

It became too complex a task to try to represent in the report the viewpoint of the various churches on a Human Rights Act. Thus we omitted all reference to same. I daresay this will become a common response by public inquiries which doubt the public's interest in investigating the complex arrangements now in place for church leaders to express diverse views under various guises.

Following the release of our report, Cardinal Pell repeated his strong opposition to a Human Rights Act in any form. He wrote: 'I fear a charter could be used or abused to limit all sorts of freedom, and religious freedom. Already in Victoria legislation is attempting to coerce prolife doctors to cooperate in abortions. However that government will answer for this in the next and subsequent elections.'

Obviously there is room in the Church not just for disagreement about the application of laws but also about the electoral repercussions of controversial laws. The abortion reform was an Act of the Victorian parliament which did not split on party lines. My own political opinion, for what little it may be worth, is that the Brumby government will not answer for the abortion law reform 'in the next and subsequent elections'.

Where will that then leave church leaders who put their faith in parliaments unconstrained by charters of rights and in an electorate increasingly secularised and indifferent to religious moral pleas?

Some Church leaders, Cardinal Pell among them, think Church positions on contested moral issues have a better chance of being reflected and maintained in law and policy if parliaments are not constrained by a Human Rights Act. Judging by recent debates on abortion, RU486, and stem cells, I would beg to differ. Gone are the days when church leaders behind closed doors can do deals with political leaders about laws and policies.

I understand the concerns of those Church leaders who fear the secularising effect of the soft left 'liberal' agenda will be accelerated by the passage of a Human Rights Act. I think those concerns are misplaced. A Human Rights Act can be designed to ensure parliamentarians have due regard for freedom of religion and conscience, including the conscience of the religious citizen who is out of sympathy with a prevailing soft left liberal agenda.

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University's Public Policy Institute. This is an edited extract of his address to the Australian Association of Catholic Bioethicists entitled 'Toothless, Trojan or True to Trinitarian Anthropology? Reflecting on the 2009 National Human Rights Consultation'. Full text

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, bioethics, human rights act, cardinal george pell



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Existing comments

Funny how commentators like Frank Brennan invoke public opinion polls only when it suits. A considerable majority of Australians also back the restoration of the death penalty and the slashing of immigration. Not long ago most Australians voted to retain the present constitution.

Sylvester | 28 January 2010  

Cardinal Pell's attitude towards a Charter of Rights would be more defensible if he and other Church leaders were more vocal in defending human rights while there is no Charter. Currently there are several areas of society in which fundamental human rights are being denied to Australians and the Church leaders are silent in condemnation of these abuses...the construction legislation is only one such.

Jim Macken | 28 January 2010  

Thankyou Fr.Framk, I agree with the points you made - I am 75yo and grew up with messages that normal human activity was kept secret from us and it was surely sinful - T.G. I have left all that behind snd I respect the role of the Jesuits in our society, here in Adelaide with refugees and being open to the rest of us who want to listen. I go back a long way with a Jesuit connection - remember Fr. Tommy Bourke, a great character, mad about astronomy, I remember him well, keep it up.

margaret o'reilly | 28 January 2010  

Where is the evidence, Sylvester, that 'a considerable majority of Australians... back the restoration of the death penalty'?

Ginger Meggs | 28 January 2010  

How disingenuous can His Eminence get? The Victorian legislation to which he refers was passed, not because of Victoria's Human Rights legislation, but in spite of it, as Fr Brennan has demonstrated in Eureka Street. The episode causes me to lean more towards the toothless tiger criticism of a Federal Act than the Trojan horse.

Alan Hogan | 28 January 2010  

Although resort to black-letter law in order to preserve principles is self-limiting, when political decision-makers are driven by the knee-jerk populism that masquerades as conservative intellectualism, confidential closed-door discussions are moot.

When church leaders resort to the same populist public utterances, confidence in their capacity to conduct confidential closed-door discussions is likewise diminished.

David Arthur | 28 January 2010  

The Church claims it supports and defends Human Rights, understood as the twenty-eight fundamental rights outlined in the UN Universal Declaration. (I think that rights of groups, such as nation-states and corprations, are harder to ground, philosophically.) It seems illogical for the Church to oppose a Bill of Rights which defends these rights.

It can be argued that such rights are based on the same Judeo-Christian-Muslim inheritance that underlies many of our institutions. The Church is also a proud member of this tradition.

I wonder if Australians are ready for Earth Rights too? Can the Church support the notion that Earth, its ecosystems and species have some fundamental rights, such as the right to exist and the right to evolve? Will we enshrine this in legislation?

moy hitchen | 28 January 2010  

Another reasoned article by Frank Brennan. Thank you Frank.

If Cardinal Pell supported a Human Rights Charter he would also have to recognise women as equals and Really that would NEVER do!!

Rosemary Keenan | 28 January 2010  

Fr Brennan is utopian in his thinking if he does not understand how anti-Christian such a bill of rights is. How much tolerance will there be for those doctors and nurses who assert their conscientious objection to doing surgical abortion and issuing RU 486 or in prescribing contraceptives? I can hear the hyenas howls of intolerance issuing over cyberspace already. Cardinal Pell is right in expressing some skepticism about Fr Brennan's naivete.

You can have the most beautiful words in a Bill of Rights but if there are no good people to implement it, what is the use?

The more liberal humanists chant 'tolerance' the more intolerant they are. How far do you get in politics, law or academia if you are a pro life Catholic? Not far - there's 'tolerance' for you. And it is just such purveyors of intolerance in academia and the law who are crafting this Bill of Rights.

Catholics, don't be conned.

Skye | 28 January 2010  

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Benenson Society Australia- Pakistan Chapter | 28 January 2010  

Yes,every person in our fair country should have equal rights under the law.Actions not words are the basics of Human Rights. Is Cardinal Pell fearful of females demanding their right to be equal members of the Catholic Church?

jack kennedy | 28 January 2010  

Fr Brennan says: 'I understand the concerns of those Church leaders who fear the secularising effect of the soft left 'liberal' agenda will be accelerated by the passage of a Human Rights Act. I think those concerns are misplaced.' Fr Brennan is naive in this conclusion. The Left's agenda will never remain soft or 'liberal'. In the medium to long term it will grow teeth to become as hard and as intolerant as any other fundamentalist agenda. Just look at diverse nations such as Britain and Venezuela, for example.

Michael Bernard | 28 January 2010  

The Catholic Church has no problems with a Bill of Rights which is an honest charter focused on the common good and protecting the REAL human rights of ALL people without distinction. The Church's credentials as a defender of human rights today is second to none - refugees, a fair economy, families, abortion, aboriginal advancement. stem-cell research, capital punishment, etc.

What the Church is worried about is a Bll of Rights which is ideologically motivated to make it impossible for Christians to present their social and educational services according to their own philosophical, ethical and theological principles through enforcement of rules about what they can say and do and who they can employ. The churches of Britain are very concerned about 'equality' legislation currently before parliament precisely for this reason.

The Catholic Church in that country has already been forced to close adoption facilities because its long-standing, traditional positions on the nature of marriage and family and what is best for children are now 'illegal'. A bishop in Scotland recently said that the UK was becoming a cold place for Christianity. Here in Australia there has already been a very serious denial of the rights of conscience to Catholic doctors in Victoria to refuse to be involved in what they see as the crime of abortion, the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibities notwithstanding. In other words, Bills of Rights work against human rights when they become politicised. Cardinal Pell is very correct to be worried about this.

Earth rights? Only persons have rights. The earth is not a person.

Women are equal in the Catholic Church but different just as men and women everywhere are equal but different.

Sylvester | 28 January 2010  

Australia is the only major English speaking country in the world without a bill of rights. We urgently need a bill of rights because Australians, including children are denied access to public service on equal terms, denied the right to legal youth advocacy on equal terms, denied the right to free speech and publicity, and denied the right to trial by jury in front of a competent, independent, impartial and democratically elected judge. I detailed the judicial abuse an unrepresented bullied schoolboy suffered in court to Radio 4BC:

My citizen journalist articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal Online on several occasions, but I’ve been denied publicity in our very own country and the government has refused to acknowledge us as Australian citizens with inalienable human rights and has doggedly refused to publicly acknowledge and comment on our documented and corroborated corruption allegations in order to prevent attention to our case.

Coverage and further details:

Australia’s lone stance against civil rights bill:how juristocracy enables this and blocks debate
QLD Governor Silent on Judicial Corruption Claims Against Brother
Armed Police Eject Mother From Queensland Parliament
Governor of Queensland’s charade and judicial corruption denial continues

Jennifer Nash | 28 January 2010  

I don't think Cardinal Pell is the least bit confused about the Human Rights Act. In the United States the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids government assistance to non-public schools. I think that is reasonable as I think no tax money should go to promote sectarian education. I am sure Cardinal Pell disagrees with me on this. I think people should have the right to send their children to schools run by a religious group, but I think the religious institution and/or the parents should pay the full cost.

david fisher | 29 January 2010  

Can you imagine yourself to be a medical practitioner in Victoria where you must, if you refuse to perform an abortion, refer a mother to an abortionist against your conscience? The abortion act violates freedom of conscience and religion, and I will not vote for a politician who voted for it.

katrina haller | 29 January 2010  

If I could clumsily reprise the role of Bernard Woolley in 'Yes Minister': there need be no paradox in being labelled both a "toothless tiger" and a "trojan horse".

A toothless tiger feigns to ferociously guard one's interests, but is exposed as a useless wimp. A trojan horse is feted as a seal of victory, but is in reality the enemy's vehicle for one's defeat.

One could argue that the proposed human rights bill will be useless in defending authentic human rights, and, via its vagaries and motherhood formulae, be exploited by the Culture of Death to undermine same.

hugh | 01 February 2010  

You have seen the full text. It will be interesting to see what publication of this speech will promote.

Fr Brian | 02 February 2010  

Such an irksome rhetorical ploy: people don't disagree, one side is not right the other wrong, people simply misunderstand, they are confused. So insulting to proper debate.

I find the human rights debate disingenious and depressing. I used to think human rights instruments were a means to preserve social values in a world without anything resembling a moral compass. Having wasted much of my professional life in the field of human rights, whether it be as an os volunteer, futher study, as a government advisor or as a lawyer commited to social justice, I realise they are nothing but a means by which the state can marginalise the politcally unpopular with a new found moral selfrightousness. The state can now insist that its actions are not just legal but a form of moral authority. Objectors are not only wrong at law but "morally" wrong. And why would it be any other way? These documents are not drafted by the socially vulnerable but by the state to serve the ends of the state (regardless of who does the initial spruiking).

Daniel McGlone | 03 February 2010  

I hope Eureka St will be impartial enough, Catholic enough to allow right of reply to this view?

Paul Groves | 03 February 2010  

congratulations important work and I support the process. How do you however provide for future change? The US constitution has run into the problem with the right to bear arms. What we do now will always need to be reviewed and modified in the future.

justin o day | 08 February 2010  

I am a Christian divorcee and single mum of 2 wonderful kids who was abandoned when the youngest was 2 days old. It's no fun to be treated with suspicion that I will lead some church man into sin etc just because I am single. I find it sad that i can not take my children to church as a family anymore. One church recently said it would love to have my kids but not me, or my new boyfriend. He is a good man and separated after raising his 3 kids to adulthood because his wife was seeing another man... she is encouraged to attend church and that was even stated as a reason for us not to go to another church in another town. I think that had i chosen a path of abortion I would not be having so many difficulties trying to be part of a church and take my kids to church now. I have had similar problems with 3 local churches linked by talk between churches. this is not allowing us to find one we can all settle in and worship as a family. As a Christian I do not understand it as it all seems very uncharitable and unchristian to me. Or perhaps it is because my boyfriend left behind millions of dollars in assets to her and her boyfriend and we are now too poor to be able to get married. Long before I became involved with my boyfriend, one church decided I was possessed by the evil spirit of Jezabel (please look that up on the internet its backwards, superstitious and sad and gets used to hurt women) and that is where a lot of the trouble really started for my kids and I. My boyfriend merely became a trusted friend at first because he didn't believe that nonsense and stood by me. Please bring in some human rights laws that stop all this nonsense... so Christians who find themselves in awkward situations mostly through no fault of their own can attend any christian church with their kids in their own town. Although as it is, I don't want my kids to see what we have been through as an example of Christians and church and am too ashamed of Christians to take my kids to church.

Sue | 06 October 2010  


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