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The confused politics of freedom of religion



The government's refusal to publish the Ruddock report means that the politics of the freedom of religion debate is mightily confused. The report by former minister Philip Ruddock's committee, commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull, has been with the government since May yet remains unreleased while the government ponders its options.

Former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who oversaw the Religious Freedom Review (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Fairfax has obtained a copy and its reporting has unleashed a flurry of commentary, much of which muddies the waters for any reasonable person trying to get to the bottom of the issue. One reason for this is that few Australians can confidently explain the current state and federal legislative situation, and without such knowledge understanding any reform proposals is extremely difficult.

What is clear though is that the discussion is widely framed as a conflict between secular and religious Australia, as if such entities existed, with secular Australia defending the rights of the LGBTIQ community in the wake of the positive same sex marriage decision and religious Australia wanting to shore up its right to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexuality.

Whether or not that is a fair reading of the position of so-called religious Australia is a moot point. Religious Australia is extremely diverse, even if restricted just to its large Christian component. But for the community at large religious Australia is perceived to be a single undifferentiated mass. That perception usually identifies the more conservative Christian position as encompassing the values of the entire Christian community.

That is most unfair and potentially damaging. All Christians are effectively tarred with the same brush. Of course, by throwing in their lot with the conservative Christian 'No' case during the same sex marriage campaign some senior Catholic leaders have brought such an identification upon themselves. The conservative Australian Christian Lobby, supported by some Catholic leaders, have successfully represented itself as speaking for all Christians.

This identification, in the context of the freedom of religion controversy, has now led to Catholic education leaders, in particular, having to fight to free themselves from widespread misconceptions. One after the other Catholic Education Office leaders, individual school principals and archbishops have taken the chance to do so.

Michael Lee, principal of St Mary MacKillop College in Canberra, has been remarkably successful by achieving front page publicity in the Canberra Times for his uncompromising rejection of discrimination on the basis of a person's sexuality, which he saw as incompatible with the Catholic message of love. He applied this position to both staff and students and welcomes LGBTIQ students.


"The Catholic Church must be, and be seen to be, an inclusive and compassionate community as far as sexuality is concerned."


Archbishop Mark Coleridge, speaking for the Catholic Church in Australian, reiterated that the church's submission to the Ruddock committee did not seek concessions 'to discriminate against students or teachers based on their sexuality, gender or relationship status'. The church restated its position that 'Catholic schools welcome staff and students from all backgrounds who are willing to accept the declared mission and values of the school community'.

But some confusion still remains, at least in the eyes of the public, as to what that caveat actually means in practice. It may be interpreted with different nuances by various Catholic school systems and independent Catholic schools. Catholic education, like the church itself, is not a monolith, but it would help if the variety of Catholic education offices could speak with one voice through the National Catholic Education Commission on such a vexed and complex question.

There will be more damaging controversy to come, possibly up to and including the next election campaign. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is personally identified with conservative Christianity, has been adding to the confusion by his own unhelpful statements. He must now balance conflicting opinions within his own party room and within the Coalition. Labor has its own balancing act to perform but will seek to differentiate itself from the government, especially through Tanya Plibersek and Senator Penny Wong.

But eventually some welcome clarity may be reached and in the middle of hurtful discord and damaged reputations that will be a step forward.

When this is the case the official Catholic position must be clear both to Catholics and to the wider community. We must be, and be seen to be, an inclusive and compassionate community as far as sexuality is concerned. We can achieve this best if our position is not confused by opportunistic alliances with other churches and groups which are further right on the social and political spectrum than most mainstream Australian Catholics.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.


Main image: Former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who oversaw the Religious Freedom Review (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, freedom of religion, Philip Ruddock



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Existing comments

Religious leaders who did not use the Ruddock Report to discriminate against LGBTIQ students are to be applauded. I believe that the move by extremely conservative Australians to push the right to the freedom of religion issue is largely about giving religious organisations the "right"to discriminate against LGBTIQ people in relation to their attendance at private schools or their right to marriage equality. If these people were truly sincere in wanting human rights for all, including those who are religious, why do they not join progressive Australians to demand for an Australian declaration of human rights? Such a formal statement could safeguard the rights of all citizens regardless of their philosophy of life, race, gender, gender preference or political affiliation. I think it was very inappropriate giving Phillip Ruddock the role to head this inquiry (or any inquiry about human rights issues), anyway, because of the disgraceful role he played as minister of immigration some years ago. As he was subjecting asylum seekers to appalling treatment in Australia's overseas detention centres (concentration camps?), he continued to wear an Amnesty International (AI) badge - much to the chagrin of other AI members who sincerely believed in human rights. His daughter was so outraged by his actions that she moved overseas as an aid worker. Australians of goodwill should be demanding that our governments support a human rights declaration and legislation that protects all aspects of human rights.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 12 October 2018  

The Catholic community, and Christians generally, are diverse. I am currently forced as a taxpayer to contribute to schools whose attitudes and behaviour I consider to be immoral and inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. My religious freedom should be taken into account at least as much as the religious freedom of those involved in such schools. It cuts both ways.

Malcolm McPherson | 12 October 2018  

good on you to the principal of St Mary McKillop College on allowing students not to discriminate against LGBTI persons , this is great, keep up the good work.

maryellen flynn | 12 October 2018  

A timely and much needed piece. I agree that it’s important to clear up any confusion regarding the 'caveat' referred to because it is central to understanding the state and federal anti-discrimination legislation in place currently. It also explains why the media has been unable to report specific cases of gay students actually being expelled because of their sexuality, despite there being hundreds of thousands of Years 10, 11 and 12 students in Catholic schools for decades. The protections for religious bodies in the legislation (either explicit or through exemptions) merely put faith-based organisation on par with other values-based bodies such as political parties, trade unions and industry peak associations. A Greens candidate, for example, could not publicly declare support for coal-fired power and expect to remain a candidate. They would lose pre-selection and have no case before an anti-discrimination tribunal because the reason for their removal was based on the party’s core values. You want to be a Greens candidate? You cannot publicly undermine the party’s policies. It’s the same with faith-based bodies. The current protections in the law could be used to allow a school to dismiss a married heterosexual teacher who stands outside a school gate and publicly protests the Church’s teaching on divorce, for example. Parents enrolling their child in a Catholic school have a legitimate expectation that the school will teach Catholic values and beliefs. Schools need a way to legally ensure they can do that.

Jim | 13 October 2018  

Archbishop Coleridge's proviso -- "Catholic schools welcome staff and students from all backgrounds who are willing to accept the declared mission and values of the school community'" -- risks sounding duplicitous, lake a man or an organisation which opts to walk on both sides of the street. It DEMANDS to be explained honestly. The problem is (i) that the Ruddock group was constituted by the previous Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, as a sop to the ultra-conservatives in his Coalition as compensation for their trouncing in the postal survey on same-sex marriage last year and the subsequent Parliamentary rout; (ii) the fact that it seems as if those Coalition parties are being taken over by the "religious right" and are at grave risk, therefore, of suffering the same fate as the ALP did in the 1950s and 1960s when the Coalition is next in Opposition and has lost the "glue" of power and perquisites to hold it together; and (iii) the disposition of those opportunist conservatives (religious and political conservatives) to frame most (if not all) socio-political questions and arguments as if they're uniformly religious in nature. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution explicitly prevents the Parliament from passing legislation on religion: the the new PM -- with his own religious encumbrances -- has, therefore, to tread with care (for reasons of party cohesion and legality). It would be unbecoming -- for reasons which Professor Warhurst discusses (and for other reasons, too) -- if Mr Morrison were to grasp at religion as his current salvation. For him to do so would be a parlous misreading of the politics, the sociology and the religious dimensions of the matter: the nation would then be at risk of paying a high price.

(Dr) John CARMODY | 13 October 2018  

A considered article John. The baying of the secularist media searches for any issue that can castigate the Catholic Church. I’d guess none of these critics have ever visited a parish school and seen the children coming out in hijabs etc, from many cultures, all accepted and taught without discrimination. But the Guardianistas and Fairfax press aren’t looking for reasonable debate such as you’ve given us here.

Rosemary Sheehan | 13 October 2018  

I think Catholics are stuck between the traditional Pope Benedict approach of "intrinsic evil of homosexuality" and the more humane words of Pope Francis of "who am I to judge". Like the birth control issue Catholics are going to have to make up their own individual minds on how to act decently and ethically. Personally where ever I work or study whatever I do outside these hours is no one's else's business. In those moments of unintended outings it is always a moment of vulnerability and risk as I am never sure if I will be insulted, humiliated or victimized. The Church sure desperately needs a Vatican Council on sexual matters matters swirling around related to sex: birth control, abortion, clerical celibacy, remarriage of divorcees, clerical pedophilia and homosexuality. Many of the long held values and truths must be re-expressed in our times.

Ivan Tchernegovski | 13 October 2018  

Thank you for allowing Feedback on this article. I agree with you that religious people are not a homogenous group, and no doubt Gays, Lesbians, Transgenders etc probably are not either. I know Gays opposed to Gay Marriage, and Gays who are religious, thus not belonging singularly to any niche group. Biologically we are male or female. If we affirm anything, at least we can affirm that. Sexuality - unlike biology - is choice and how we 'feel'. Some choose opposite sex, some choose same-sex, some choose many partners, some partner for life, some choose both sexes, some marry, some don't, and some are celibate. Sexuality is what we do (or don't do), rather than who we are. I think the mistake is thinking your sexuality's your identity, when it clearly isn't. Religion also is a choice, we choose to follow Jesus, Allah, Buddha etc - but these beliefs come with values that are held sacred to the believer. I do believe it would help as you say if religions spoke with a singular voice about contentious issues like this. If the three major religions followed their Holy Books, they would speak with one voice: practicing homosexuality is a sin, God loves you regardless, and loving people sometimes means disagreement. Many send their children to schools of their particular faith because those schools hold the same values. Not because they dislike gays, or choose to discriminate against others, rather because they hold certain texts (such as TORAH, KORAN or BIBLE as sacred). Everyone in Australia is free to send their child to a public school: education is available for all regardless. Personally I think ones sexual choice is best kept to yourself, especially when you are at school. Growing up is hard enough, and nearly every child gets bullied anyway, without adding this to their burden. I know many will not agree with me, but I am glad we live in a civil society where disagreement does not equal hate, and we have much freedom of choice

heather kell | 13 October 2018  

Religious freedom means freedom in matters of religion. For example, any citizen of a liberal western democracy has the right to choose whether they practise religion or not. Further, their choice must not disadvantage them in any way that is under the control of the government. That's an essential aspect of the rule of law. Freedom of religion is not an optional extra in a free society, and it is important for all citizens, not just religious groups. In Australia, religious freedom is not well protected, since the States are not bound by the clause of the Federal Constitution that forbids the Commonwealth Government from making laws to enforce a religion or to forbid it. The only protection under State laws are certain exceptions to anti-discrimination laws. This means that in theory at least, a State government could vote to impose a religion and only have the anti- discrimination laws to protect them from the worst excesses of this. That's why the Ruddock Review, whose members seem to me to be eminently well qualified to understand the important issues at stake here. I promise to mow the MCG with a pair of nail scissors, like St. Lou Richards, if the report turns out to contain any recommendations to change federal law to allow religious discrimination. It's just a nonsense. And I'd really like to know who's benefitting from the current confusion, because then I might know who started it. And why.

Joan Seymour | 13 October 2018  

Malcolm McPherson is quite correct - religious freedom cuts both ways. But what I have found interesting in this debate is Philip Ruddock's off the cuff remark on The Drum on Friday (12/10/2018) indicating that the pressure for selective enrolment based on sexuality was most strongly expressed the ethnic religious school.

Nicholas | 13 October 2018  

As always, you are a breath of fresh air, John. A pity that more Catholics could not apply the same sense of inclusion displayed by people like you and Michael Lee. It annoys me no end to hear the conservatives speaking so self-righteously, supposedly in God’s name and so at odds with the attitudes of Pope Francis.

Pat Power | 14 October 2018  

Malcolm McPherson's discomfort at being "forced as a taxpayer to contribute to schools whose attitudes and behaviour [he considers] to be immoral and inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus" reminds us that religious freedom ... cuts both ways. As one who paid taxes for 48 years, I am uncomfortable with the allocation of taxes to maintain Australia's concentration camps in the Pacific, where people who sought asylum in our country are detained indefinitely; and allocation of funds to a business group to "protect the Great Barrier Reef" rather than adequately funding CSIRO, who are qualified and experienced in such work. I am uncomfortable that, even with recent improvement in our Federal budget position, our Prime Minister off-handedly rejected increasing the cruelly inadequate New Start allowance as "making whoopy". Yes, religious freedom, and questionable allocation of our taxes, do cut both ways.

Ian Fraser | 14 October 2018  

Chris Merritt gets it correct: “Religious freedom is a right, just like any other. It is just plain wrong to treat it as we currently do: a form of discrimination that operates as an exception to the law.” As with all things politically correct, existing legislation is dressed up in the language of “equality” and “tolerance” but the language used allows the silencing of all citizens—think Archbishop Porteous. Former High Court Judge, Dyson Heydon, refers to the modern elites who brook no opposition to their beliefs as the “tyrants of tolerance.” But recent litigation is a cause for optimism. The Norwegian Supreme Court has just recognized a fundamental right to conscientious objection, protected by international law, where a doctor had been fired for refusing to comply with an instruction (abortion) that she considered morally wrong. A British Supreme Court found Christian bakers in Belfast could not be forced to act against their conscientious beliefs by baking a cake depicting “Support Gay Marriage.” And Professor John McAdams won against Marquette Jesuit University which had sacked him for criticizing a fellow lecturer who had refused a student the right to speak out against same-sex marriage.

Ross Howard | 14 October 2018  

Thank you once again John for a thoughtful discourse. I totally agree with Pat Power's opinion. I remember a case many years ago when two teachers I taught with were married. Sadly the relationship broke down and they were subsequently divorced. The Principal, a Brother, decided to request the lady to leave the school on the grounds of "scandal", whilst retaining the gentleman and even subsequently promoting him. I have never forgotten that hypocrisy, it really hurt and upset me and my wife who know both of these lovely and dedicated teachers well. Sadly,, I feel that while Michael Lee , a strong supporter of the Christian ethics of love and fairness will continue to show leadership in this area , there are many others in positions of leadership in our Catholic and other religious schools, who will continue to discriminate against these people,but will use other excuses to carry out their agenda of discrimination.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 October 2018  

Heather's post reads like Pooh-Bah's in The Mikado. While I presage my comments by announcing myself as a homosexual, I rarely hear heterosexual people, except for Bill Uren SJ, announce their sexual orientation before expressing their point of view on such a divisive topic. (Uren stood up to Cardinal Pell at the time on a sexual morality issue on which Pell characteristically took the narrow road). Homosexual orientation, like heterosexuality, is an ontological reality! Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. As such, the presence of a homosexual person in the Catholic school cannot be a matter of announcement as reality is a dawning phenomenon and what might have been unknown at the time of their initial employment would undoubtedly come to be known within the twelve year period in which a pupil is exposed to a teacher's influence. I have known many gay teachers, including priests, during my Jesuit schooling and elsewhere in my professional career. While it was never expected that I announce myself, I was treated no differently to my heterosexual colleagues. To exhort otherwise would have been homophobic rather than prudential, since teachers must subscribe to a behavioural code.

Dr Michael Furtado | 15 October 2018  

What business is it of any organization to include or exclude people based on their, as Michael Furtado says 'ontological, and if you like 'God given' sexuality? Phobias are about irrational fears about something not ontological facts. Most do not fear that the 2+2= 4. Again what permits an organization to accept or reject about conformity with a dogma? This is old stuff,control their sexuality and you have 'em by the short and curlies.

Michael D. Breen | 15 October 2018  

Michael Breen, in answer to your question: peoples' right of assembly, a constituitive part of religious freedom, includes their entitlement to articulate and implement beliefs, values and policies that provide coherence and purpose to participants. Is there any organisation that does not exercise this? Nor is it only religious bodies that have standards of sexual conduct: the social dimension of sexuality requires more than individual determination of what is acceptable.

John | 16 October 2018  

Find me a Catholic school staff or, for that matter, a school's parental cohort these days without a divorcee and indeed at least one 'living in sin' and you might be apprised of the extent of the problem the Church faces in monitoring the heroic example of staff to honour the 'lifestyle' clause in every Catholic school teacher's contract. Indeed, any priest will tell you that, were he to insist upon asking if couples presenting themselves for marriage are not cohabiting, there would be a catastrophic drop in Catholic Church marriages. The mediating principle, which John and I have often clashed about, is of course the question of context. For John, no matter how penurious and morally disabling the financial circumstances of young people offering themselves for marriage, there is no excuse for adultery. For me, and many clergy, it all depends.....! Hence, to institute a black and white rule that snoops upon and monitors the sexual behaviour of gay teachers would be an abomination because, not only would it offend against the privacy of the individual but also against the freedom that all people must exercise in order to exhibit the possibility of living heroically as well as virtuously.

Michael Furtado | 16 October 2018  

Michael Furtado, there is a difference between Catholic schools articulating expectations and values consistent with the Gospel and the "monitoring" of them. The practical principle that applies, as in all cases involving morality, is "discreta caritas" (a discerning charity) which takes circumstances into account. Instances of disciplining staff for breaches in this area are rare, and in my experience arise only from a deliberate provocation by staff treating Church teaching on sexuality and marriage with distortion or contempt. With regard to the pertinence of religious freedom to schools, I think the more relevant and realistic issue is that of the right of faith-based schools to exercise an independence in curriculum consistent with their defining beliefs, values and mission.

John | 17 October 2018  

John, what are those gospel-values that emphasise the danger of homosexual teachers? I would dearly like to know, as I was given to understand the very opposite from your presumed namesake, John X:10 ('I come that you may have Life and live it to the Full). While I appreciate your affinity for puritanical interpretation, privileging judgment and exclusion, please tender an explanation for your view that doesn't descend into the morass of mind-body dualism. There is nothing more relevant and pressing than the responsibility of Catholic schools to offer a curriculum consistent with their defining beliefs and values of mission and justice. A skewed focus on Church teaching about heteronormative sexual practice as a smokescreen for excluding gay teachers would surely detract from such a focus, given that Jesus came for all and was especially dismissive of the Pharisees in his midst while welcoming of the outsider. Diverting Catholic school attention towards excluding gay teachers, thereby denying justice before all else, would surely make that a travesty. Regarding 'discreta caritas', I only ever hear it invoked by heresy hunters, intent upon dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't' in support of the letter and not the spirit of the law.

Michael Furtado | 17 October 2018  

Michael Furtado, I find no foundation for your assertion of a "puritanical interpretation" by me of standard Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage (my blindness no doubt another pharisaical and/or homophobic flaw!); nor for your insinuations of my being "skewed" and disingenuous (" . . . a smokescreen for excluding gay teachers") in maintaining, in keeping with the Church's tradition, heterosexuality as normative in God's creative purpose. I'm also surprised that, with your long Jesuit association and evident admiration for the order, you place a negative connotation on the term "discreta caritas", emphatically employed by Pope Francis and integral to Ignatian spiritual discernment. Furthermore, in actual practice, none of the Catholic schools in my experience - and they include homosexually oriented staff - exhibit the police-state surveillance mentality ("snooping") and extreme sanction that appear to so aggrieve you; in fact, they demonstrate a remarkable catholicity and acceptance of age, race and gender. I might add, too, that the concept of justice extends also to parents who seek the support of the Church's teaching on sexuality and marriage in the education and upbringing of their children.

John | 17 October 2018  

John, Pope Francis invokes 'discreta caritas' in terms very different from the drawbridge-raising contexts in which you employ the expression. His exhortations, contrary to yours, are to be open to the world and to embrace it with hope, trust and courage. While I agree that none of the Catholic schools in my experience exude the police-state surveillance that you mistakenly attribute to me, my fear is that the overarching external political discourse of accusation and counter-accusation on gay student enrolment and teacher employment will displace the very delicate equilibrium that wise Catholic educational leaders demonstrate in regard to issues of age, race and gender. While the concept of justice undoubtedly extends to parents who seek the support of the Church's teaching on sexuality and marriage in the education and upbringing of their children, the context of new understandings of homosexual rights, especially in light of youth suicide and other self-destructive practices, calls for a rather more availing pastoral and legal attitude on the part of schools than you appear to concede. As it is, the Prime Minister himself, an evangelical Christian, has promised to outlaw the exclusion of gay students and various codes of professional behaviour apply to all educators.

Michael Furtado | 18 October 2018  

Michael, "discreta caritas", as does a Chrisitian serving of society with "the gospel of life" (to use the titular phrase of Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical), requires judgment, as Pope Francis knows and frequently exercises - his much publicised and over-literalised informal remark to journalists earlier in his pontificate notwithstanding. Being open to the world does not exempt sensate thinking beings from making judgments, any more than does discernment, of which judgment is an intrinsic part. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the more open to the world one is, the more judgment is called into play: a sifting is required in a range of experiences: the aesthetic, the moral, the spiritual, to name a few. Judgment, we could say, is an intellectual imperative and precondition of informed, responsible choice. What then can Christ mean when he says, "Judge not . . ." (Matthew 7:1)? Surely, not the abandonment of a distinctively human God-given faculty, which he himself often exercised publicly in matters such as faith, power, justice, prophecy and sexuality. Characteristically, he names falsehood and sin for what they are, calling for the truthful and remorseful self-recognition inherent in repentance, and simultaneously offering forgiveness, liberation and new life. I'd think this understanding of "discreta caritas", or "speaking the truth in love" as Paul says (Ephesians 4:15), has a central place in personal life and society, including schools; and irrespective of hetero or homo sexual orientation. I'd like to think you'd think the same. I also refer you to my response to Joshua Badge's article that appears in ES today.

John | 18 October 2018  

Thanks, John. I am envious of your response, except to add that the wisest leaders, such as the Oblate priest, Michael McMahon, who was my first Head of School in Australia, ensured that the matters that you and I debate never came to the point of crisis that so perturbs you on the question of homosexual teachers. I suspect it was Fr McMahon's skills as a psychologist and counsellor that ensured this. He spent at least four days of staff development every year in teacher formation, taking a personal interest in those he employed, and in whom he placed explicit trust, that could not but pay off in terms of their discipleship. This meant that, not only was I able to apprise him of my marital difficulties as a gay man, but he helped me with the process of coming out and self-acceptance in such a way that it would have been impossible to betray his trust. I know of several teachers, parents and students whom he helped in this regard. In fact he is one of the most sought after school counsellors in Australia. The prudential machinery of the law notwithstanding, it is leadership that makes the Catholic school.

Michael Furtado | 19 October 2018  

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