This is my submission to the Review into Religious Freedom being conducted by Phillip Ruddock. If you’d like to make a submission, you can do so here.
Thank you for allowing the public to make submissions on the question of religious freedoms. Since there is no proposed legislation to be addressed, I can only make a few general remarks, but I am glad of the opportunity to do that.
I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament of the Uniting Church in Australia. My Christian faith is at the absolute centre of my life and identity. I am grateful that I live in a country in which I am able to express that faith in public without the fear of persecution. I am aware that this is often not the case for people of other faiths. In particular, since 2001 many Muslims have experienced a level of persecution that is unconscionable in multicultural, multi-faith Australia. Presumably submissions by members of minority faiths will make the point better than I can; I just wish to say that as a Christian and a member of my local interfaith network I am committed to people of all faiths being free from discrimination.
As a minister and member of the Uniting Church I am committed to the recognition and protection of all human rights. In a statement on ‘Dignity in Humanity‘ in 2006 the National Assembly of the Uniting Church declared that we believe ‘that every person is precious and entitled to live with dignity because they are God’s children, and that each person’s life and rights need to be protected or the human community (and its reflection of God) and all people are diminished’.
I am a little concerned that this enquiry is looking into religious freedom in isolation from other human rights. Human rights are indivisible, universal and inalienable. In its statement the Uniting Church Assembly acknowledged that: ‘In the exercise of a person’s rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of human dignity and the general welfare of a democratic society.’ To talk about ‘religious freedom’ without talking about other human rights may lead to ‘religious freedom’ being seen as an unlimited right. It is not; as the ICCPR states in article 18 (3), ‘Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’
In the context of this review, the freedom of people of faith to express our religious beliefs must be limited by the right of LGBTIQ people not to be discriminated against on the basis of our sexual orientation. I am pleased that under the recent changes to the Marriage Act (Cth) 1961 Ministers of Religion retain the existing right to refuse to solemnise marriages under section 47, and that there is a new category of ‘Religious Marriage Celebrants’ that covers those religious leaders who are not part of recognised denominations under section 26. I think that the exemptions for religious marriage celebrants and bodies established for religious purposes in sections 47A and 47B are all that are needed to protect people of faith from violating their conscience in the matter of marriage equality. I do not believe there is a need to go further to protect religious freedom.
I believe this particularly as a Christian. I am aware that many Christians do not believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. I am also aware that the Christian response to all human beings, those with whom we agree and those with whom we profoundly disagree, is love. The Apostle Paul reminds us that our response to our enemies is to feed them if they are hungry and give them drink if they are thirsty. (Romans 12:20) Thus the Christian response of a Christian baker asked to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding of which they disapprove is to bake the best cake possible, in love. But I honestly do not believe that there are many providers of goods and services in Australia who want to discriminate against same-sex couples getting married. That’s not who we Australians are.
I believe that the best way to protect religious freedom, and all human rights, is with a Commonwealth legislative Bill of Rights. The Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (Vic) 2006 has worked well over the past decade and provides a model for what could happen nationally. I strongly urge you to consider a Commonwealth Bill of Rights as a way of protecting all human rights, including religious freedom.