Religious Freedom Legislation

By Archbishop Julian Porteous

I recently received a letter from the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. While it was addressed to me personally I am sure that I was one of many religious leaders who received this letter. It concerned the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill currently being considered by the Parliament.  

The Prime Minister said in part, “The ability to live in a country where you could live your faith free from persecution is one of the primary reasons many choose to make Australia their home”. I believe the Prime Minister is right in highlighting this point. The vast majority of us who are blessed to be born in Australia too easily forget just how fortunate we are. We forget or are unaware of the extent of religious persecution that still exists throughout the world.

But this is now slowly changing in Australia. I have noticed over recent years that the freedom to express and live by religious belief is increasingly being whittled away through legislation in different jurisdictions across Australia.

Our right to publicly profess religious beliefs was severely challenged during the debate about the nature of marriage. I had the personal experience of being cited by the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner as possibly being in breach of the Anti-Discrimination Act because of a complaint made against a Pastoral Letter on Marriage that I circulated to the parents of children in Tasmania’s Catholic education system. The document was approved by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. An individual claimed to be offended by some of the content of this Pastoral Letter.

I have always cherished the freedoms we enjoy in Australia. As a society we have come to believe that a person should be free to publicly express their opinions, in particular, deeply held religious beliefs, as long as they do not incite hatred or violence. In order to function properly our democratic system of government requires free and respectful public debate on issues affecting the life and direction of our nation. It is the oxygen for the lungs of our democracy.  

During the marriage debate, I also experienced firsthand efforts to prevent meetings organised to oppose change to the legal definition of marriage. This kind of censorship was most disturbing at the time and has only become worse since. It has come to be referred to as a part of ‘cancel culture’ or ‘de-platforming’. Increasingly individuals and organisations are being denied the right to respectfully express and promote their beliefs in public debate. They are being refused the use of venues, threatened with loss of employment and hauled before anti-discrimination bodies for simply daring to publicly express or promote their deeply held religious beliefs.

I am further concerned about the denial of freedom of conscience on important moral matters. For example, Tasmania’s Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013 states that while a medical practitioner with a conscientious objection to abortion is not obliged to participate in termination of pregnancy procedures, that same practitioner must refer the woman seeking an abortion to another practitioner who does not have a conscientious objection to terminations. The Act states that doctors and counsellors are liable to be fined if they do not make the referral.

During the recent debate on Euthanasia legislation in Tasmania certain members of Parliament claimed that if the legislation was passed then all institutions, including those run by faith-based providers, should be compelled to allow it to take place in their facilities. They openly opposed religious freedom. As Catholics one of our core moral principles is the obligation to protect all innocent human life. To allow the taking of such life in our institutions would violate this belief.

At present here in Tasmania the Law Reform Institute is finalising advice to government concerning so-called ‘conversion therapy’ legislation. If this kind of legislation is passed it would essentially prohibit the expression of religious or medical views not consistent with radical gender ideology. It would severely limit the freedom of doctors, psychologists, councillors and ministers of religion to help and assist those struggling with their sexuality and/or gender. It would essentially make it illegal for people of faith to express and practice some of their core beliefs about human sexuality, gender and sex. Such legislation has already been passed in Victoria which potentially allows for a priest to be imprisoned for presenting Church teaching to someone who freely requests spiritual and moral guidance.

It is vital that our Catholic schools are free to present the fullness of Catholic teaching to students. All staff employed in our schools are expected to support Catholic teaching in their professional capacity, even if some may have personal reservations. Prior to enrolment parents are made aware that the school will present Catholic teaching in lessons and other school activities and give their consent. Indeed it is because of the Catholic faith and the type of human formation provided that parents seek a Catholic education for their children. They want their children to be raised in accordance with certain beliefs and values.

Having the legal ability to require employees to uphold the religious values of the school is essential to the operation of faith-based schools. Yet this too is now under threat. In Victoria legislation has recently been passed which removes the ability of faith-based schools to require staff to uphold the religious principles of the schools in their professional capacity, except for the roles of Principal and Religious Education Co-ordinator. Religious employers need to be defended in their rights to employ only those people who will support their mission.

The Prime Minster said in his letter that this Bill “will provide genuine protections against Australians being discriminated against because of their faith or beliefs”. It is clear that this Bill is now needed in Australia to protect religious freedom both for individuals and for communities of believers gathered together to share and promote their faith.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Read Dr Gerard Gaskin’s opinion piece on the Religious Discrimination Bill

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