Despite some attempts to the contrary, it would be a mistake to treat the “Expert Panel to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion” as round two of the same-sex marriage debate. While the deep differences that lay behind it remain, everyone needs to realise that the legal discussion is well and truly over.
What is not over is the achievement of what chairman Philip Ruddock said was the purpose of the Expert Panel process: namely that freedom of religion must not only be enacted but “well understood and respected.“
Even those who might think religion is rubbish should still agree that it must be as free as possible. Of course, religious freedom cannot be absolute. It should be viewed in context with other competing rights and valid concerns over public health, safety, law and order, and issues of public morality.
But the issue of religious freedom — together with other freedoms of association, speech and the right to own property — is crucial to the health of our society and the flourishing of its people.
Not only does this give each individual freedom to hold and manifest their religion, but also such freedoms enable different and distinct voluntary societies and communities to maintain their identities — without which they could not exist. This in turn enriches civil society.
As things stand, there is considerable religious freedom in Australia. This is mostly due to Australia’s inheritance of the English tradition of unwritten rights and freedoms that are protected by custom and the common law.
Will this be sufficient to maintain such important freedoms in the future? Many, including the CIS, have submitted to the expert panel that the time may well be coming when we need to go a step further — to protect freedom of religion by the legal codifying and consolidating traditional freedoms and protections while at the same time not creating new rights or limiting existing protections.
Even if you aren’t a believer, everyone has a stake in a society that preserves the freedom of those who are. Liberty for those we don’t agree with is the true mark of genuine liberalism after all.
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