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The confused politics of freedom of religion

  • 12 October 2018


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.

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