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Freedom of religion effects more of us than you think

Last year’s census in Australia (remember all the hoo-hah?) contained for the first time the option of ticking “no religion”.  And plenty of us did. The statistics show that one third of the nation ticked that particular box.  The number will surely rise at the next census.

On top of that a whole heap of people who ticked a religious option, did so because it’s more of a thing from their upbringing than a particular conviction they hold now that shapes how they spend their time and energy.

With only about 15 per cent of us saying we attend some form of worship either sporadically, or frequently, religion is no longer a big part of what most people do.

So when it comes to the question of whether the freedom of religion could be under threat as a consequence of a “Yes” vote in the same sex marriage survey, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s not really a big deal, more of a bogeyman put out by a worried “No” campaign.

And then when you see churches putting up signs like this…

…you may think that really it’s just a storm in a teacup; worried vicars scared that they may be forced against their will to marry same sex couples (they won’t, and they never will be forced to do that).  

Let me say two things about that sign in light of the concern about religious freedom.

First, it’s a sign put up by a church that has religious freedom already.  Its proponents are advocates of same sex marriage and believe that the church can and should move with the times on sexuality, and that the Bible is either wrong on its understanding of sex, or that the traditional understanding of what the Bible says about sex needs to be reinterpreted.  Either way, those who put this sign up are in broad agreement with same sex marriage, and reject as incorrect any religious perspective that says otherwise.

The sign should really say “A yes vote will not harm OUR religious freedom”, because the church in question that put the sign up is in broad agreement with the consequences of such a vote.  In other words, we’re not really that concerned with the religious freedoms of those whose beliefs we disagree with. As long as we’re okay, then there’s nothing to worry about.  And if the religious freedoms of those we disagree with are under threat from what we wish to affirm, then we’re not going to lose sleep over it.  It’s a selfish sign pretending to be a generous one.

It’s that attitude that true religious freedom cannot countenance.  It’s that attitude to religious freedom that means true freedom will be lost. True religious freedom in our public square means that we speak up for the religious freedom of those with whom we fundamentally disagree.  True religious freedom means allowing those who say the opposite of what you say, or what the state says, is true, to say it and to do so publicly and actively.  

And not just freedom to speak those beliefs, but to live those beliefs out with others who share those convictions – that’s freedom of association. It also means that institutions that spring from these faith communities (think schools, hospitals, charity organisations), can still publicly hold to their faith based policies and continue to operate without detriment under the umbrella of government approval and patronage to carry out their tasks. 

Religious freedoms affect many more of us than we may have first believed.  You may have ticked “no religion” in the census, and you may have ticked “yes” in the marriage postal survey, but a loss of freedom of religion can still affect you. If you send your child to a faith based school or university, or you are a patient at a faith based hospital, or like the good that Christian charities do then you need to understand the risk these organisations may face. If the law changes on marriage will they be able to hold to a traditional understanding of marriage without detriment? Will they be free to operate continue according to their beliefs or will they face anti-discrimination, regulatory, tax, funding, compliance, accreditation and employment challenges? Will a school need to tow the line on a new sexual morality or face threats to funding? It is one thing for a law to permits same sex marriage – it is quite another for the law to impose that new understanding of marriage on others who in good conscience will never change their beliefs. The important question is whether our pluralist society can permit and encourage the flourishing of all groups across the spectrum, or whether a hard secular approach is going to be taken that refuses support to all but one perspective. 

Well that’s the first thing.  Now for the second.  Don’t worry, it’s shorter.  Shorter and sharper.  Freedom of religion is not simply about religion.  It’s about the freedom not to be forced by the state to go against our consciences.  And that takes many forms, including religious and political.  

Modern democracies were founded on the notion that the state cannot enforce uniformity of religion or politics.  A truly secular state is a pluralist state; a place in which competing ideas  and practices are permitted in the public square without fear of censure. 

Hence while a “yes” vote itself may not directly affect religious freedoms, it’s the subsequent push to silence and punish any dissent that is clearly the concern.   That has been the international experience. There is a certain internal logic to it as well – you can hardly bring about revolutionary reform of marriage in the name of justice and ending discrimination then say you will easily allow for exemptions. Our country has inadequate religious freedom legislation and these need to be addressed urgently.  Why? Because freedom of conscience has been challenged and ridden roughshod over in every other Western democracy in which same sex marriage has been recognised.  To say otherwise is a little like climate change denial - it flies in the face of the evidence.

Perhaps a better sign might be “A yes vote may privilege sexual freedom ights and harm religious freedom, and we need to talk together about the place of freedom for all people in secular pluralist 21st Century Australia .”  That would be a generous, if somewhat crowded, sign and one that reflects an increasingly wider range of society.  For here’s the irony, despite the number of people ticking the “no religion” box, an increasing number, a bigger percentage than will vote “yes” are concerned about religious freedoms being curtailed should the vote go through.  

So you may have no religion, but you do have liberty of conscience to say so, and you recognise how precious a gift that is, whether you worship a god or not.

Media Enquiries

In accordance with s 6(5) of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017, this communication was authorised by Michael Kellahan of Sydney for Freedom for Faith.

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