Ignoring religious freedom debate helps no one

Peter Kurti

30 November 2018 | The Daily Telegraph

Far from being free to hate, a new poll on attitudes to religious freedom has confirmed what we always knew about ourselves: a clear majority of us are stoutly committed to being free to believe.

The Newspoll shows nearly 60 per cent of Australians are in favour of new laws not only to protect religious freedom, but also to protect freedoms of religious schools.

Green-Left strategists, who thought bashing religion was a sure-fire vote winner, will be scratching their heads as they ponder the findings: 63 per cent of Green voters backed the idea of strengthening the law.

Religious freedom could well emerge as a watershed marking a new, bipartisan approach to politics; putting an end to the bitter denunciation of believers that arose in the wake of the 2017 same-sex marriage vote.

Of course, had the Coalition not continued to sit on the Ruddock religious freedom report — commissioned after the plebiscite and handed down in May — religious freedom could have been dealt with quickly, and long ago.

But the Coalition did nothing … and so the report was leaked. And despite no gay student being expelled from a religious school, the God-bashers whipped up fears it was about to happen.

Just this week, a Senate report has offered further reassurance to those fearful about expulsions by recommending strengthened protections for gay students — as well as beefing up protections for gay teachers and staff.

At the same time, the report acknowledges that securing the right to religious freedom always means striking a balance between other rights — such as the rights to non-discrimination and equality.

For too long, religious freedom has been regarded as what’s known as a “negative freedom”: that is, in certain situations, the law permits an act that would, in any other circumstance, be discriminatory.

But the Senate report has recommended changing the law to turn religious liberty into a positive freedom — giving it a similar status to the other key freedoms of speech, conscience, and association.

In other words, by turning it into a positive freedom, religious freedom would be recognised in Australian law as a fundamental right rather than as a grudging or reluctant concession.

This is important because once religious freedom is affirmed as a positive right, it is easier to strike an appropriate balance between different positive rights while acknowledging the importance of each one.

The Newspoll results and Senate report — by happy coincidence being released in the same week — together serve as a warning to those politicians and activists who want to give God the boot.

In recent months, public assertions of religious belief have been routinely denounced for being nothing more than thinly-veiled hatred intended to humiliate and harm the vulnerable.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Australians are fundamentally decent people who don’t go out of their way to denounce or humiliate anybody. We stand for the freedom to live as you choose.

At the same time, a clear majority of us also have a religious faith and ask for nothing more than the freedom to order our families, our faith communities, and our religious schools in line with our beliefs.

Religious freedom matters to us. But it has been front page news for months because of determined efforts by militant secularists to drive God out of the public square and silence the voices of believers.

But now that protecting religious freedom has been shown to enjoy widespread community support — only 25 per cent of those polled were opposed to changing the law — politicians will need to take note.

Parents opt to send their kids to faith-based schools for a reason: they want their kids to be imbued with the values of a specific religion — whether it is Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity or any other faith — and they expect religious school to teach those values.

Australians are proud of our successful multicultural society and its broad diversity. We cherish the freedom to worship any God or none, and to build our lives according to the beliefs we hold dear.

Any of our political leaders who ignore that, may find they do so at their peril when voters go to the polls.

Peter Kurti is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at Notre Dame University.

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