Prepared by Kamal Weerakoon*
The Federal Government’s religious discrimination bill has been referred to TWO parliamentary inquires. Both are accepting submissions from the public.
- The Parliamentary Joint Committee On Human Rights is accepting submissions until 5pm (AEDT), 21 December 2021.
- The Senate Standing Committees On Legal And Constitutional Affairs is accepting submissions until 7 Jan 2022.
As well, the Joint Committee On Human Rights has created an online survey which we encourage you to complete.
Here are some points you could make in a submission to these committees. You can also include these points as comments in the Human Rights Committee survey.
This is not a template submission. You need to adapt these points to be relevant to your particular situation.
- This religious discrimination legislation is an opportunity for Australia to lead the world as a truly diverse and tolerant society.
- Religion is an established human right. Article 18 of the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and that “[n]o one shall be subject to coercion which would impair [t]his freedom”.
- Despite this establishment of religious freedom as a human right, religious freedom is in substantial decline across the world. The Religious Freedom Institute https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org catalogues increased oppression of religious minorities in general. Open Doors’ World Watch List https://www.opendoors.org.au/persecuted-christians/world-watch-list publicises increasing discrimination against Christians worldwide.
- Christians, who hold to traditional Christian beliefs are increasingly mocked, marginalised, or even vilified and bullied in Australia today. Australia Watch https://australiawatch.com.au documents examples of this anti-Christian oppression.
- Traditional Christians are concerned that Australia may decline towards the kind of anti-religious, anti-Christian culture that Europe has become. The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe https://www.intoleranceagainstchristians.eu documents the kind of oppression that Christians in Europe increasingly face.
- Christians desire the freedom to speak and live according to our beliefs – including our beliefs concerning sexual morality – and to form communities – schools, churches, charities – which are based on and advance those beliefs. This is what we consider “tolerance”.
- Christians do not want to impose those beliefs on the rest of society who do not share those beliefs. “Tolerance” is not “theocracy”. “Theocracy” occurs when the government mandates a particular religion, requires all people within its realm to worship that religion, and punishes people who refuse to worship that religion. Australia has never been a theocracy. Traditional Christians do not want Australia to become one, because theocracies are always oppressive.
- Christians are not seeking protection from all criticism. “Tolerance” is not “censorship”. People who do not believe what Christians believe – including Christian beliefs about sexuality – should be free to criticise Christianity. A “tolerant” society limits such criticism to public speech by individuals and non-governmental associations, and does not permit the government to use its powers to formally censure and punish people for speaking and living their honest beliefs. This limitation of criticism, and the responses to criticism, to the public non-governmental realm, is a key difference between a tolerant society and a “theocracy” which is characterised by intolerant censorship.
- This is why it is important that the Religious Discrimination Act protect good-faith, non-malicious, non-threatening religious speech. Religious people believe certain matters to be true, on the authority of God. People who do not believe that religion will not accept the authority of that God. Therefore, the mere utterance, the mere statement, of religious beliefs does not, in itself, force or coerce anyone else to believe it. Therefore, the mere act of making a religious statement is not harmful and should not be censored.
- The people most at risk of being oppressed by contemporary sexual permissiveness are those who conscientiously religious, but are poor, or low-skilled, or new migrants to the country. They are most at risk of losing their job because they refuse to wear purple on “purple day” which celebrates sexual permissiveness. They are most at risk of suffering negative mental health outcomes – depression, anxiety etc – when the local public school teaches their children to contradict beliefs about sexual morality what their native culture has believed for centuries.
- A Religious Discrimination Act will signal that Australia regards religious belief to possess the same value as sex, age, and race, therefore be worthy of similar protection. This is why we need a Religious Discrimination Act as well as a Sex Discrimination Act, Age Discrimination Act and Racial Discrimination Act.
- Another reason we need a Religious Discrimination Act is that religion, precisely in its nature as a belief system, is categorically different to sex, age, and race. Sex and gender have demonstrated to be partly biological and partly socially constructed. E.g.: it is a biological fact that males have XY chromosomes and females have XX chromosomes, but different cultures have different understandings of how “men” and “women” behave. Race is biological, dictated by one’s ethnic background and ancestry. Age is chronological. But religion is categorically different. It is formed through an interaction of the individual with their family and society and has no final basis in biology or chronology. Precisely for that reason, in the current global circumstances of rising religious intolerance generally, we need a specific act which recognises the specific nature of religious faith, and the nature of attacks against conscientious religious belief, and thereby protects people’s honest religious convictions.
- Religion is communal. Schools, hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers, disability service providers, and other charitable organisations are communities of people working or studying together. Schools, hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers, disability service providers, and other charitable organisations which are founded upon, organised by, and motivated by religious beliefs, should have the right to expect the people of their community to abide by the religious principles of that community. Therefore, religious organisations should have the right to employ people who share their religion, or at least share the value framework associated with their religion. Similarly, religious schools should have the right to require certain behavioural standards which can be demonstrated to be expressions of their religious values.
- These religious communities need to be explicit about their beliefs, and the values and ways of life associated with those beliefs, so that people who access their services know what to expect. People who object to those values and lifestyles should act on their objections by not employing the religious organisation’s services – i.e., not sending their child to the religious school; not sending their aged parents to the religious retirement home; etc.
- Requiring religious communities to be explicit about their religious requirements and permitting people to refuse to use those religious organisation’s services, is categorically different from not even permitting religious organisations to operate according to their religious beliefs. Such a requirement (a) misunderstands the communal nature of religion, and (b) is therefore tantamount to disallowing the public exercise of religion, in a way which contradicts UN-recognised human rights.
- Religious organisations provide their services to the public. But religious organisations are private, not public, institutions. The government should not closely regulate the private sector. Close government regulation of the private sector is a denial of the principles of freedom of association and freedom of thought which underpin liberal democracy.
* Kamal is a member of the GS&C committee and the missions pastor of Gracepoint Presbyterian Church https://www.gracepoint.org.au. He grew up in Sri Lanka during a time of civil war, which has given him a keen interest in issues concerning racial and religious harmony.