Election over; what now for religious freedom?

russell powell
Election over; what now for religious freedom? image

Christians should continue to press for religious freedom after an election in which the issue appeared to play a significant part, according to the Bishop of South Sydney, Dr Michael Stead.

There will be significant questions around freedom

Dr Stead chairs the Religious Freedom Reference Committee and was a frequent commentator in the media during the campaign. He believes that notwithstanding the result of the election, there will be very significant questions around religious freedom in the next 12 months.

“Faith-based schools are going to face significant challenges in the next year to ensure that they retain the freedom to operate according to their beliefs,” he says. “The Ruddock Review has raised issues that remain unresolved, which will be resolved one way or the other in the next year or so by the work of the Australian Law Reform Commission.”

ALRC is due to report in April

The Government commissioned the ALRC to undertake a comprehensive review of the framework of religious exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation across Australia. It is due to report before April 2020.

“The ARLC has been asked to work out the appropriate way to balance the right to thought, conscience and belief with the right to non-discrimination,” Dr Stead says. “That is the right question – there are two sets of human rights, both enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18 and Act 26. What do you do when these rights rub up against each other?”

What do you do when these rights rub up against each other?

We need a bipartisan approach

Dr Stead says a national, bipartisan approach would be helpful given the political nature of the debates in the lead-up to the election.

“It has been observed that this was a significant issue across the country and there were noticeable swings against sitting ALP members in Western Sydney, which correlated closely with the ‘No’ vote in the plebiscite. It was clear that the responses from the Liberal Party provided a much more fulsome protection for religious freedom than those proposed by the Labor Party.”

He adds that many people became aware of the issue during the campaign but it was poorly understood by the public and politicians alike.

“I encourage Christians to continue to make your concerns known to local MPs,” he says. “There may well be an increased awareness among politicians on both sides of the house as to the real and deep significance of this issue for people of faith.”

"Make your concerns known to local MPs"

What does Israel Folau signal to the rest of us? 

The issue was thrust into the spotlight during the campaign, in part because of the treatment of rugby star Israel Folau – who was sacked for posting a Christian message on Instagram. At the time, Bishop Stead told The Australian: “If a rugby player can be sacked by doing nothing more than posting on his social media page what is essentially a summary of the Bible then it’s a signal to the rest of us that we’d better keep our mouths shut.”

Since Rugby Australia ruled that Folau had committed “a high-level breach” of its code of conduct, Archbishop Davies, from overseas, sent a message of support on Twitter: “I stand with Israel Folau”.

There needs to be a positive protection for free speech

The Archbishop, Bishop Stead and other church leaders pressed both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader for a commitment to religious freedom. Bishop Stead told SBS that he was frustrated that they characterised the dispute between Folau and Rugby Australia during a leaders’ debate as a contractual matter, rather than one of freedom of speech, conscience and belief.

​​​​​​​

“The problem with that is that there does need to be a positive protection for free speech, so people can genuinely say what they believe without being gagged by oppressive codes of conduct – because employers will then have ­licence to restrict religious speech in a workplace context for fear of offence,” Dr Stead said. “In effect, people will be told to leave your religious self at home when you come to work.”

Bishop Stead says Christians should continue to press for appropriate protection. “There were a number of proposals announced by the Government that were not able to be progressed in the lead-up to the last election. In particular, the proposal for a Religious Discrimination Commissioner. We are looking forward to seeing the Morrison Government make good on that promise.”