Our freedom of speech is under threat

Archbishop Julian’s 2021 Australia Day message

This week we celebrate the blessings of our life in Australia. We are a prosperous nation; we have enjoyed a long period of the absence of threat of war; we are a diverse but peaceful people; we have stability of government. In many areas our society reflects truth, goodness and justice. Of course, all is not perfect, but we can acknowledge the many blessings that are ours.

Even when many nations are suffering greatly due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are currently almost virus free. We have a level of normalcy to our life that many, even highly developed nations, do not enjoy at this time.

We lift our hearts to God in gratitude for all that is good in our lives because we live in Australia in 2021.

Our culture has been largely shaped by its English and more broadly European origins. This cultural patrimony has been shaped in its turn principally by Christianity. To the present the Christian Bible has been a key foundational document that has guided and shaped how our society viewed human life and social interaction.

While in the early years of the British colony being Catholic presented some disadvantages, with small hinderances and injustices, religious freedom albeit in a limited form was broadly recognised. After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 however Catholics could expect, at least in principle, equal treatment with those of the Establishment religion.

Gradually over the years, despite some outbursts of sectarianism, the Australian community has come to embrace the principle of religious freedom.  Yet in more recent years this commitment to religious freedom has increasingly come under attack.

An aggressive brand of secular fundamentalism in Australia’s media, education, corporate and other institutions is seeking to deny people of faith the right to freely follow and give public expression to their beliefs.

Now we are finding that anti-discrimination legislation rather than protect against discrimination has been used to try and silence the Christian voice on important moral issues, on the basis that these beliefs are considered ‘offensive’.

It is critical to remember that religious freedom is one of the key hallmarks of the civilised and just society. Religious freedom is not just the right to freely participate in religious activities, but it also means that a person has the right to live, speak, and act according to their beliefs, peacefully, within a public setting. It protects their ability to be themselves at work, in class, and at social activities. It means they should not be discriminated against for simply living and expressing their deepest beliefs in a respectful way.

The Morrison government has stated its commitment to passing a religious discrimination act to protect religious freedom. This has not eventuated to date, in part due to the need for government to focus on addressing the COVID-19 situation. This legislation was intended to finally give some clear legal protection in Australian law to what has been proclaimed and acknowledged as a fundamental human right since the Universal Declaration as signed in 1948, the right to religious freedom.  Such a law would have had particular application here in Tasmania by preventing the state anti-discrimination act being used to limit religious freedom, particular freedom of religious speech.

More generally there is an urgent need to more strongly protect freedom of speech and freedom of association in Australia. Anti-discrimination laws are not just being used to silence people of faith but anyone who would challenge radical social theories and positions being promoted by activists. Anti-discrimination laws have become weapons to prevent freedom of speech rather than shields to protect the vulnerable. This is proving to have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech, with people increasingly reluctant to express their position on important moral and social issues, for fear of being prosecuted.

We pray for our nation. We pray in particular that protections for freedom of speech and association are strengthened so that all people of good will might be able to freely express their views in a respectful way for the good of the society. It is only through robust, open and free public debate that our country can continue to prosper and flourish.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

26 January, 2021

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