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Religious freedom is negotiable


Angelus bellFreedom of religion is something that is normally taken for granted. But in the English speaking world there have recently been many spotfires over issues like wearing and hanging crosses in public, and proposed legislation to compel the disclosure of what is heard in confession, to compel Christian adoption agencies to accept applications from gay couples and to force clergy to marry gay couples in churches.

These, and other controversies over the insurance of contraceptive practices in the United States, have led some Catholics to identify a concerted secularist threat to religious freedom. I believe that the freedom to express publicly one's religious beliefs is central within any healthy society, but that the current tensions are part of the normal negotiation of its relationship to other values in society.

Religious freedom includes the right to hold religious beliefs, to associate with others with like beliefs, to engage in practices connected with those beliefs, and to commend one's religious allegiances, beliefs and way of life to others. Religious freedom implies the right of individuals to make and withdraw from religious allegiances, and also the right of religious groups to live by and promote their beliefs and practices.

It also means that people should not be impeded from holding religious beliefs, expressing them and embodying them in their association with others.

Religious freedom should be protected for the same reasons as political freedom. Both assert the value of human beings reflecting on what matters in life and of living publicly by the answers they give to these large questions. Religious freedom asserts the importance of human freedom and the personal centre that ground the respect given to individual choice.

This human freedom and interiority must be supported by the right to express itself in public and bodily ways. When religious or political freedom is suppressed, human beings are reduced to political and economic counters.

But religious freedom is not absolute. Nor is everything claimed in its name sacrosanct. Its claims need to be set against the claims made by other human values. And they may sometimes be denied. Extreme examples are easy to imagine. In some religions human sacrifice was central to belief systems and practice. Freedom to practice it would rightly be denied because it stands in contradiction to the central value of human life.

Some religious groups, consistently with their beliefs, have forbidden their members, including children, to receive blood transfusions. Here, too, the freedom of the parents to follow in their family life their own religious practices has been set aside in favour of the child's right to life-saving medical treatment.

On the other hand, the freedom of parents to have male children circumcised in accordance with religious tradition, though questioned, has generally been upheld.

Generally speaking, however, the most common limitations on religious freedom in democracies do not apply to central practices and beliefs themselves but to the particular ways in which individuals and groups choose to express them publicly. And those things are often negotiable.

In my childhood the church Angelus Bell rang at 7.00am each morning, including at weekends. But when the neighbours complained that it interfered with their sleep, it was rung later in the morning. Similarly, after some dispute, Sikhs were able to wear their head dress, but not as substitutes for motorbike helmets.

Such limitations on freedom of religious expression are usually negotiated peaceably by mutual agreement in a way that affirms the claim of the values in tension. Earlier fierce opposition to trying clergy in the king's courts is now a historical memory.

We should expect challenges to religious freedom from time to time as other principles come to be given a higher weight in society. These challenges will be more frequent in societies like ours where religious belief and practice decline.

Many of the present conflicts over religious freedom are associated with the high value given to the principle of non-discrimination. It is seen to be in conflict with the freedom of Christian adoption agencies to place children with Christian parents, of schools to employ only Christian staff, and with the freedom of ministers to conduct in their churches marriages only between a man and a woman.

Many see these pressures to limit religious freedom as part of a concerted effort by secularist forces. I don't see it that way. They reflect new fault lines in the tension between religious freedom and other values and the need to negotiate the claims of each in different situations.

Both religious freedom and non-discrimination are important values, but the claim made by neither is absolute. But in negotiation ambit claims are made, and from this perspective many demands for the limitation of religious freedom are simply ambit claims, not the first wave of an incoming tide.

Negotiation requires a clear understanding of the values that are in conflict in each situation, of why each value is important, of what is non-negotiable and where there is room for movement. All this is best done by persuasion, not by going to war. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, religious freedom, gay marriage



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Existing comments

As I was reading this article, I thought about a topic not specifically mentioned and that is the right to diversity of belief within a religious denomination. Or did I miss something? There are a number of people within Christianity who belong to a particular denomination but do not subscribe to every belief expressed by leaders of that denomination. The central tenet of Christ crucified would be shared. There is something transfiguring in the theme of human love (whether from a secular or religious standpoint): that we love not in spite of imperfection but in the very midst of imperfection. Where human frailty is most apparent, love most abounds: Ah! but those tears are pearl, which thy love sheds/ And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds. Shakespeare's Sonnet 34:13-14.

Pam | 13 September 2012  

I have to disagree with Fr Andrew's end statement in the last paragraph that religious freedom is dependent on negotiating "the conflict in each situation." To say that reduces the whole concept of Freedom of Religion to a contingency platform, rather than honouring it as an innate component of human dignity.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 13 September 2012  

Among the many thought-provoking subjects raised in Andrew’s discussion on freedom of religion, is his assertion that religious claims ‘need to be set against the claims of other human values’. This can be interpreted as an acknowledgment that in some cases religious dogma should be discarded in favour of common sense and basic human principles of right and wrong. Some would call this ‘Humanism’. The problem in modern times, at least in Australia, is that the generally good influence of religions is being replaced by some of the evil tendencies in human nature, especially greed. It is time that all groups, religious or otherwise, concerned about basic human principles joined together and opposed the over-influence and power of those with excessive wealth. It is the antithesis of good religious principles - and democracy.

Bob Corcoran | 13 September 2012  

I agree with Andrew. In renegotiating a values conflict, however, the rub is that the church also needs to be open to the possibility of having to see, admit and correct correct its own wrongs.I am thinking, for example, of the application to the Church historically having castrated young boys to preserve their soprano voices for singing the praises of God. I mention this becasue in hindsight things are easier to see. Of course,there are current applications that would take a lot of moral courage for the church to honestly examine. If it was willing to do this, the church would be in a position to take its critique of other values, to the conversation table.

Pauline | 13 September 2012  

Would Fr Mick make clear what he means. I fail to see where the statement he disagrees with is not a reasonable approach to a complex problem.

Brian Poidevin | 13 September 2012  

The sentence about blood transfusions reminds me of another area in which freedom is threatened. The area of personal health. Sometimes what the medical orthodoxy claims to be the only way to health is only one of several ways, even sometimes not the best way at all (witness the change of belief and treatment regarding stomach ulcers). Seems we are allowed more freedom of religion that we are of which path towards health we follow and encourage our children to follow.

Janet | 13 September 2012  

Thank-you for a fairly well-balanced article, Andrew. It is worth reiterating, though, that most advocates for marriage equality do not suggest that priests, ministers and their congregations must accept and marry same-sex couples, regardless of their religious objections. Both bills before the federal parliament make this clear and, furthermore, who in their right mind would want a blessing upon their solemn union from an authority and a community which rejects them? Freedom of religion AND freedom from religion is what makes pluralist society such as Australia in the 21st century. Believers and non-believers should be able to live and let live. Respect is a two-way street.

Michelle Goldsmith | 13 September 2012  

"Here, too, the freedom of the parents to follow in their family life their own religious practices has been set aside in favour of the child's right to life-saving medical treatment."

This is a sleight of hand move. Don’t JWs believe in their children's right to life-saving medical treatment? Of course they do. But they don't believe that treatment may be IMMORAL, and they view (incorrectly, IMO) blood transfusions to be immoral. Fr H: you also wouldn't defend what to you may be immoral means to save a child's life. Eg, if a terrorist credibly threatened to kill baby X if you didn't torture or mutilate baby Y (eg), you would (I presume) refrain from the latter.

What's really going on in the case of the JW blood transfusion issue is not some delicate weighing of JWs’ “religious freedoms” vs “human rights”. That’s a rather offensive proposition for JWs – to characterise their religious belief re. blood transfusions as somehow in conflict with basic human rights. What you should really be saying, ecumenically speaking, is that JWs ethical/religious beliefs conflict with what Christians (and others) uphold as basic human rights from THEIR particular ethical/religious point of view.

The JWs’ view hasn’t been merely “set aside” (how delicate!) in favour of human rights. It has been ruled to be incorrect (thank God!), and injurious to human rights OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING, according to another ethical/religious viewpoint which has, on this point at least, been judged to deserve hegemony (the Judeo-Christian/natural law tradition: rightly, IMO.)

One way or another in our communities and states, SOME ethical/religious viewpoint prevails, and in doing so, it supplants and suppresses its incompatible rivals. Fr H’s piece fails to account this fundamental fact from the start, and wanders along a falsely irenic, dangerous path from there.

“Error has no rights!” Everyone – religious and secularist alike – raises their hands in horror to this classically Catholic, sensible, proposition … before hypocritically proceeding to implement it in their own way, as we see here with our (IMO correct) treatment of the JWs.

It's very un-PC, I know, but, why can't we just be more honest?

HH | 13 September 2012  

A short reply to Brian Poidevin. If Religious Freedom was recognised for what it is, an innate part of being human, the "exception would never become the rule" in that politics, cultural trends and economics would not be the 'determinors' of human identity, but always obligated with the protection of that. Take for example the abortion issue. If Religious Freedom had been upheld, then legal protection would always be afforded the life in the womb, with 'exceptions' only in the genuine cases of actually saving the life of the woman, not the lifestyle of the woman and the man who equally contributed to the pregnancy.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 14 September 2012  

Thanks for the comments. Negotiation does not imply selling out - often it leads properly to the acceptance by others of a non-negotiable position. Not sure precisely what HH is arguing. But perhaps I could rephrase my offending phrase to make its meaning clear. Society, through the Government, has considered the claims made for religious freedom in respect to blood transfusions, and has decided that those claims cannot be accepted in the case of children. That of course does imply a moral judgment in this instance, but it does not imply the acceptance of a particular ethical or religious framework, still less deny the claims of other frameworks. Governments in democracies are not competent to judge between ethical frameworks. Of course it is true that errors have no rights, just as it is true that rocks have no brains. Persons have rights, and that is why conflicts over rights need to be negotiated.

andy hamilton | 14 September 2012  

HH, you conveniently use the passive tense when claiming JW's position "has been ruled to be incorrect" - ruled by who, I wonder, and thanks to what God, I wonder. And writing "OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING" in capital letters does not make your argument more or less objective. Morality is always subjective and your claim that Christian/natural law is written in stone is negotiable!

AURELIUS | 14 September 2012  

Forcing clergy to marry same sex couples is an absolute misnomer and a red herring.
Although clergy (of Recocnised Denominations) are Agents of the Commonwealth to perform marriages it is according to THEIR tradition.
What will have to reckoned with as far as conscience is concerned is what the Catholic church has to define the rights of the child to both a father and a mother, according to the UN Convention of which we are signatories too.

Not withstanding the contradiction when the father is a clergyman of course, the violation of depriving a child of that right flies out the window.

L Newington | 14 September 2012  

Won't speculate on the process that leads to such an abyssal difference in emphasis between the author and the Holy Father. Does he prayer to Mary in the Rosary each day? To St Joseph the Patron of the Church?

"- Pope Benedict to US Bishops Ad Limina visit this year.

“… it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”

“Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a *strong critical sense* vis-à-vis the *dominant culture* and with the *courage* to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the FUTURE OF AMERICAN SOCIETY.”

Martin Snigg | 15 September 2012  

Andrew, Thanks for a useful start to a conversation that I think deserves further development. While you make a good case for understanding and tolerance, in a way it denies a just taking of sides that upholds the teaching of the Catholic Church on some questions.

I therefore read your piece as somewhat mitigating Frank Brennan's defense of Church exemption from anti-discrimination statutes relating to the employment of homosexual persons (though I accept that you address a wider brief than this that relates to the management of political conflict).

However, the Catholic Catechism (para 2358) states: “They (homosexual people) do not choose their homosexual condition”; and “Every sign of unjust discrimination against them should be avoided.”

If Catholic employers claim there are grounds for discriminating against such persons, then patently the grounds must not be “unjust”.

However, it seems to me that in treating heterosexual and homosexual persons differently in an employment context in which we generally abandon discernment for the former, while applying a stringent code of conduct for the latter, we excuse ourselves from having to explain our actions which do not meet the criteria established by our own Catholicism.

This not a religious freedom that is negotiable.

Michael Furtado | 15 September 2012  

The article sounds like smoking room ivory tower musings, detached and remote from catholics in the trenches now fighting damn hard to keep essential values of faith, not mere non essential incidentals-USA bishops have tried stacks of dialogue to no great avail.
The armchair theorists neglect to realise the battle for the faith is not on an even playing field nay rather the church faces a secularist president and OBAMACARE.
Dialogue is pretty hard when president Obamas cannons are wheeled out, and fissures are drawn in the sand.
The article is heavy on ideation, and light on 'sits im leben' realpolitik trench detail![On the uneven playing field, goal posts move with every catholic kick!]

Father John Michael George | 16 September 2012  

L. NEWINGTON, I don't think anyone is suggesting clergy be forced to marry same sex couples, even though I sympathise with equal rights for everyone, there are too many misunderstandings and badly reasoned moral judgments floating around for any homosexual couple to feel the issue is settled. For example, marriage rights is not the same as the right to have children - and you seem to be mixing/confusing the two. I agree that when it comes to gay couples seeking to be parents, the bottom line is the welfare of the children first. Obviously the ideal traditional family is where children have both a mother and a father, but we all know this is not always the case, with family breakdowns and single parent families. But that reality isn't a valid argument in making a case. I would like to see an open and rational debate on the pros and cons of gay parenting - without the hype and accusations on both sides. I think two gay parents who love each other cannot possibly do as much damage as a heterosexual couple where there's tension and domestic violence. The issue of have both a male and female role model is important too, but even in the most ideal situation, parents will give birth to gay kids. We need to stop thinking about it as a birth defect, or the result of failed parenting, and recognise it as a healthy, normal and natural minority variant in sexuality - not something to try and prevent.

AURELIUS | 16 September 2012  

Thanks, AH. I’m not sure I’m the wiser. You say that democratic governments are not competent to judge between religious/ethical frameworks. So, how can democratic governments possibly account for the specific moral judgements you assert they make, as in the JW/blood transfusion case, in the absence of an ethical framework? Toss of a coin? The will of the majority? But neither of these is a moral account, strictly speaking. It is merely arbitrary (a coin toss) or an answer driven by non-moral forces. This is a false trail. The Catholic notion of “freedom of religion” is premised on the relation between Catholicism as the one true religion founded by Christ, and all other faiths and world views which, to the extent they depart from Catholicism, to some degree impact negatively on the common good. There is never any intrinsic conflict between “freedom of religion” and “other values” if by “religion” we mean specifically the True Religion: Catholicism. For, Catholicism has all values assessed and interrelated correctly. Conflict between religious freedom and other values arises only in the case of belief systems other than that of the true religion. Rival accounts of values posed by those other belief systems stem from error, and, in a non-trivial sense Pope Leo XIII would have understood, “error has no rights”. Out of respect for sincere conscience, those beliefs should be tolerated, where their practice does not have a substantive negative effect on the common good. (“Toleration” does not exclude the Dominical mandate to evangelize, of course.) But when those differences do indeed manifest themselves in an attack on the common good, toleration must be proportionately suspended. Such is the case with JWs and blood donations, with those who believe erroneously that a “woman’s right to own her own body” justifies direct abortion, with those who believe that same sex couples may “marry” and/or adopt children, and so on. How Catholics promote the objective common good under any system, democratic or otherwise, always requires prudential reasoning. But Catholics should never lose sight of the highly privileged viewpoint with which they have been graced as to what the common good entails, their serious obligation to incarnate that vision to the last jot, and of the profound struggle this will inevitably involve, as pithily articulated by (the non-catholic) C.S. Lewis: “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”

HH | 16 September 2012  

HH, the ethical framework for governments to deny JW freedom to reject blood transfusions for their family members is based, I would guess, on a duty of care to that child and unwillingness to take legal responsibility in the event of a death. It just happens that JW have one interpretation of scripture that differs from mainstream ethics/religious belief (of which the Catholic church happens to be part of). By taking a fundamentalist/literalist approach, it could be argued that JWs are being "more objective".

AURELIUS | 17 September 2012  

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