The Right to Freedom of Conscience

Decrease font size
Increase font size
Print this page

The results of the National Postal Survey have shown that, of those who voted, a majority of Australians have supported the Yes position. However, it is important to note that nearly five million Australians voted to retain the traditional understanding of marriage.

What is clear from the debate is that many Australians, including those who voted Yes, believe that freedom of conscience needs to be protected in any amendment to the Marriage Act.

It is not just an issue of religious freedom for churches, but it is important that all Australians are able to express their views on marriage. Furthermore, that faith-based schools are able to teach the traditional understanding of marriage according to the tenets of their religion and that church agencies are able to operate in a manner consistent with the beliefs of the sponsoring church.

Australia has been deeply committed to upholding the right to the freedom of speech and association, and in particular religious freedom. It was one of the eight nations involved in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration asserts that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which came into legal force in Australian law on 13 November 1980. Article 18 of this covenant asserts, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It mentions specifically the rights of parents when it states that there is to be “respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

Currently across Australia, there is no appropriate protection for freedom of religion. If marriage is legally redefined there are currently no protections for those who for religious reasons or conscience cannot formerly recognise or take any part in same-sex weddings. More importantly there are no protections for church agencies that provide essential services to the community, like education, welfare and healthcare.

The right to religious freedom and freedom of conscience goes to the core of the person. What one conscientiously believes about the nature of human life is fundamental to how one shapes one’s ethical life and one’s conscience. It lies at the heart of one’s personal identity. Every person does in fact have a fundamental set of beliefs which shapes their attitudes, their ethical stance and aspirations for their life. This is something sacred to each person.

Those who hold to the traditional understanding of marriage need to be able to live by their conscientiously held beliefs. The various agencies run by churches need to be able to maintain their mission and identity while providing essential services to the community. Our nation can rightly pride itself in the freedom it accords its citizens. To lose this freedom will be to the great detriment of Australia.