I learned four important — but somewhat dispiriting — things while taking part in the ABC Radio National’s God Forbid discussion of religious freedom last week. (I was joined by two fine academic lawyers – an atheist from Melbourne and an Anglican from West Australia.)
- Everybody agrees that religious freedom is a good thing but disagrees about whether there is any danger to it in Australia. The truth is that there is a relatively high level of religious freedom here in this county’s robust common law tradition — not through government legislation. But this is vulnerable as the country undergoes massive social change.
- While some religious communities will, to various degrees, accommodate the sexual revolution, there will always remain a substantial ‘recalcitrant’ minority who will not do so, and yet still want to have a place in the public life of this nation. It is still not clear if and how this will be achieved.
- Antidiscrimination law is as much the problem as the solution. Antidiscrimination law protects individuals, but unless very carefully crafted can prevent religious communities and institutions from maintaining the religious character which constitutes them in the first place. The overuse use of the word ‘discrimination’ itself doesn’t help as it too often begs the question by implying any act of selection is bad. This is what is called a ‘persuasive definition’ where the word used prejudges a conclusion without argument.
- Any successful attempt to remove the funding of religious schools that ‘discriminate’ would amount to removing government funding from religious schools altogether. Admittedly it has been done before. In the late nineteenth century all the colonies removed previous state funding to religious schools completely. It was restored by the Menzies federal government in 1964. Maybe that is a question that could be reopened, but not as an accidental outcome of an antidiscrimination debate.
My conclusion is that this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. And given the poor quality of the debate on the release of the Ruddock Report in parliament late last year, and now with so little time before the federal election I am pessimistic about much being achieved for quite a while, if ever.