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Religious freedom bill needs more work



Submissions to the second draft of religious freedom bill have closed and activists are gearing up to speak out against the bill, which will likely be introduced to parliament in March.

Stained glass windows emit a rainbow glow (Getty Images/ Chip Somodevilla)

I could give an overview and lay out the facts. How most people would agree that to discriminate against someone on the basis of their faith (or lack of faith) is wrong, but that’s only a part of what bill is intending to do. Like how the privileges given to people of faith in this bill are ‘unique’ to the western world. How in an ouroboros-like bit of logic, it will allow people of one faith to discriminate against another faith. Or that several mainstream faith organisations have made statements that they don’t agree with this bill.

And of course how healthcare professionals are already allowed to make conscientious objections, or how religious organisations like churches and schools already have the right to hire and fire people who injure their ‘religious susceptibilities’.

But other commentators have already done that. These points will be the same points you’ll hear in every news article or talking head on Q and A.

Instead, I think about how there are certain phrases that when I hear them give me a sort of sickly, fearful feeling. These phrases are things like, ‘traditional families’ or the even slipperier ‘Christian values’. In and of themselves, these phrases are just words. To me, and to many like me, they are sharp and pointed, weapons used to keep us in our place. I don’t need someone to tell me at work that because I’m queer I’m going to hell. Years of church and Catholic schooling and marriage equality debate have already made the coded language very clear when I’m not welcome.

I think about how I don’t remember feeling much religious freedom when I was young, faithful and told over and over again that my faith and my sexuality were inherently opposed. How I was systematically stripped of any comfort or trust I had in my own faith, in the assurance of God’s love.


'I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I absolutely have skin in this game. Bills like these aren’t just another bill to me, they are working to make sure I will always feel insecure in religious spaces.'


As it always goes, the focus is on the ways the people like me could infiltrate faith spaces or hypothetically infringe upon others rights to say or do what they want without consequences, without much consideration for the viewpoints of those people themselves.

I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I absolutely have skin in this game. Bills like these aren’t just another bill to me, they are working to make sure I will always feel insecure in religious spaces.

However, I am privileged in many ways, including the ability to write something like this on this platform. But if this bill has the impact that its detractors say it has the legal potential to, I won’t be hit the hardest.

Instead, it could restrict LGBTQ+ people from accessing for specific health care, like hormone therapy treatment or IVF. It could be yet another barrier to health care for Indigenous people, disabled people and for all women who live in rural and remote areas. It could allow at risk people to be turned away for emergency housing. And people who experience the trauma of SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts) who go on to report it, despite recent state efforts to ban the practice, might not able to get providers deregistered. All areas of discrimination against the marginalised that religious institutions should be fighting to prevent.

I am tired of writing about this. I am so tired of fighting just to be treated like my existence is a threat. But still, I will write to the politicians, again. And I will go to the protests, again. Because religious freedom should make people free from discrimination, not enable it.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is Acting Editor. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Stained glass windows emit a rainbow glow (Getty Images/ Chip Somodevilla)

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, religious freedom bill



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Existing comments

"Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone." The Bill needs to be ditched. The Churches have lost their moral authority and do not warrant legal authority to sin some more.

Lee | 13 February 2020  

Neve. Way too loud. If you want to capture someone's attention, whisper. Anything you get easily is not worthwhile. And it is not 'what' or 'who' or 'the opinion' of others. People have their own problems to sort out, and when they do they realise : It is something else. As Vincent in the movie 'Gattaca' 1997, understood and excelled regardless of 'The Opinion' and all other stuff.

AO | 13 February 2020  

Yikes... the degree of precision of the Bill document and subsequent debate might be failed by modern English: "How most people would agree that to discriminate against someone on the basis of their faith (or lack of faith) is wrong..." is that their own faith (possessive) or the faith of the other; both cases exist equally (e.g.: Folau). Interestingly, you've introduced the concept of the Oroborus; the pre-King James good book features the Hydra in Job, Isa and Revelations, another legendary serpent raising 9 ugly heads that grow back after being inadequately cut off. Given the politics, placating and panderings of our law makers I doubt the Bill can be anything more or less than another Hydra which keeps biting because of its inadequacies and the legal fraternity guarantee themselves another pay-packet in the process.

Ray | 13 February 2020  

Well said, Neve. While, as a gay man, I have not known Catholic organisations to sack personnel because of their gender preference, the temptation to do so through appeal to trumped up alternatives is too great to ignore, it being the case that many gay people are harried and put upon in all sorts of insidious and underhand ways in their professional lives. Any religious freedom bill should accordingly be very carefully scrutinised to ensure that fairness eventuates rather than it becoming a smokescreen for fundamentalist discrimination against gender or even religious minorities and their/our rights. In fact, we Catholics forget at our peril the benefits in the Anglosphere that secularism and its celebration of pluralism, diversity, liberty and equal opportunity has brought us. The great Catholic Emancipation Acts of 1829 and 1832 bear eloquent witness to the freedom that hard-won principles of libertarianism, fought for by Catholics like Daniel O'Connell as well as many like-minded Protestants, brought to Catholics in the Anglosphere. To turn upon and bite the non-conformist hand that has nurtured us would appear to be more than a trifle perverse. The only threat to religious rights is the one posed by anti-libertarians, both secular and religious.

Michael FURTADO | 13 February 2020  

This is an excellent article, Neve. My own attitude towards sex would be encapsulated in 'Towards a Quaker View of Sex' an essay by a group of Friends published in 1964. I see personal sexual practice as something which comes out of one's own beliefs and inclinations. For a Christian, any Christian, that would be informed by what they understand of God's Revelation in Christ. The Friends who wrote that Essay I refer to did not condemn same sex attraction nor its practice. They were thoughtful, measured and cautious. It was not an official document - Quakers don't 'do' dogma - but was published under the auspices of the London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. This Essay was in stark contrast to the beliefs and preaching of the major Christian denominations at that time. I am very cautious about this proposed Religious Freedom Bill because I think it will be restrictive and allow the preaching of hatred. We have already had the Folau incident. Would the Religious Freedom Bill allow him to preach what he did without consequence? Would it allow bigots to abuse Muslim women for covering their heads? I believe the Queensland Human Rights Commissioner has raised questions similar to these.

Edward Fido | 13 February 2020  

as Australian citizens we are allowed to practice our faith openly , it is a shame that so much athiesm is creeping into our country

maryellen flynn | 14 February 2020  

The right of individuals and groups to express and practise religious faith that values and respects the common good of society should, I think, be awarded a more positive legal status than the mere exemption that currently obtains. Of course, what constitutes the "common good" in a society that also values "diversity" poses a question for all - one, I suggest, that won't be resolved by legislation only.

John RD | 14 February 2020  

“make sure I will always feel insecure in religious spaces.” The ultimate religious space (in Christianity, and a similar concept applies to other religions) is a small physical area around a person who is preaching the sense of his or her religion. There may or may not be listeners physically present in that small area such as in a church or mosque. The person may be speaking into a computer for the Internet. What you want is to control what that person can say in that small area because of the feelings of someone who may be physical present (even though to call out sin is to call out people) and to control what (if any) can be reported of it to the wider physical and virtual spaces beyond. China bans what can be relayed from the small physical spaces and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo and the like do the same in so-called free countries. So, the bill is misnamed. It’s not freedom but toleration of religion that is the crux. It’s whether a society is permitted, by those who find such beliefs irritating, to contain beliefs in transcendent truth and eternal punishment.

roy chen yee | 14 February 2020  

Mean-spirited and dishonest governments try to pass mean-spirited and dishonest legislation. Always.

Malthus Anderson | 14 February 2020  

Congratulations Neve, how brave of you to continue to express "your truth" in spite of what is great opposition in both the church community and at large and most of all what remarkable faith you obviously have that you continue to try and reconcile your faith with God and your lived experience against all odds. My one concern about the freedom of religion for individuals in the public square was realised when years ago I objected to the way "postmodernism" was being presented at a secular tertiary education setting in an art course I was studying. We were asked to read a book of explicit homosexual activity which was rated (R) I would have objected to reading a similar book if it was of explicit heterosexual sexual activity and rated (R) I objected to the narrow way that postmodernism was being presented without input of postmodern religious/spiritual perspectives. Yours is a truly postmodern, religious/spiritual perspective. Congratulations I wish you had been in the course, I was given another book to read on postmodernism that was acceptable to me, but I withdrew due to criticism and what I believe were grounds of conscientious objection from my viewpoint.

Roz | 14 February 2020  

Roy Chen Yee seems to be under a couple of misapprehensions. Preaching (in a church) is not the central act of Catholic or Orthodox worship, that is reserved for the Eucharist, where, fortunately, except for the celebrant, his assistants and the worshippers who respond to the prayers, all other voices are stilled. He refers to the computer as 'a small space'. When the likes of Israel Folau use one to address their many followers on social media, it is a megaphone addressing a vast arena. He is in effect preaching his version of Christianity outside a church. I am chary of his qualifications (if any) and his ability to speak publicly on Christian belief. Official, qualified spokespeople for both the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese and the Catholic Church, which both hold views on sexuality similar to his, have been far more circumspect in what they say. There are mental health ramifications to the way he said what he did. There is an excellent article in today's Australian (14 February 2020 Sport p34) entitled Codes unite to protect brands from Folau bill which claims that, if the proposed bill is passed, Rugby Australia would not have been able to sack Folau.

Edward Fido | 14 February 2020  

Edward Fido: “….his version of Christianity outside a church.” Folau is a preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. Is a sermon or service broadcast on the Internet or the ABC outside a church? “Official, qualified spokespeople for both the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese and the Catholic Church, which both hold views on sexuality similar to his, have been far more circumspect in what they say. There are mental health ramifications to the way he said what he did.” Are there mental health ramifications when Folau also says that Catholics are not Christian? Was Margaret Court not circumspect? Or Archbishop Julian Porteous? “Preaching (in a church) is not the central act of Catholic or Orthodox worship, that is reserved for the Eucharist….” Celebrating Eucharist without knowing who Christ is like the man called in from the by-ways who wasn’t as respectfully dressed as the other guests. You may start out by coming ‘as you are’ but soon you’ll be expected to know why you are coming or your sole talent will be confiscated and given to the person who has ten. The opponents of Christian speech want to censor what believers can hear of Christ from their shepherds.

roy chen yee | 16 February 2020  

Roz: I think I'd have objections, too, if postmodernism were presented in education as an exclusively homosexual or atheistic mode of thought or academic phenomenon - though it is often espoused by representatives of both groups as an instrument of deconstruction applied to mainstream narratives. A main difficulty I have with postmodernism is its radical scepticism and the sophistries its (mis)use of language facilitates in relation to truth; especially when applied to truths which bear the authority of Christ in matters of faith and morals. The task of any purportedly new insights in these areas - faith and morals - of Catholic teaching is, I believe, a demonstration of their substantive consistency with and organic development from the teachings of Christ and the Apostles as defined by the Church's magisterium. Disciplines other than philosophy and theology have roles to play in the formulation of Church teaching, but they do not supersede or exempt us from what Newman calls "the dogmatic principle": a recognition that truth of its nature is authoritative and universal - not only subjective - and should be approached with due respect (all of which, of course, is anathema to postmodern sensibility).

John RD | 17 February 2020  

Has anyone here, other than Neve, actually read the latest version of this Bill or even the explanatory notes? Insofar as the bill ensures that no one should be discriminated against because they express religious belief unless that expression results in detriment to others, makes perfect sense. But the bill does not stop there; it actually privileges religious beliefs over the same beliefs held for non-religious reasons. For example, pacifist or vegetarian beliefs held for religious reasons are protected but not when they are held for other reasons. The bill also discriminates against 'big' business by setting more demanding requirements but not when that business is government or government-owned.' It specifically exempts discrimination in employment for 'domestic purposes' - in effect condoning ads like 'no Catholics need apply' when ads like 'no Sudanese need apply' would be unlawful. But worst of all it exempts all religious bodies and their associated entities from the requirement not to discriminate on religious grounds simply because they are religious bodies. For those who want to explore this further see https://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Documents/religious-freedom-bills-second-draft/explanatory-notes-second-exposure-draft-religious-discrimination-bill-2019.pdf

Ginger Meggs | 26 February 2020