A Christian Asks: What About Freedom FROM Religion?

Dear Mr Ruddock
Can this Review also consider the freedoms of atheists and those without religious beliefs?

“Article 18 [of the United Nations ICCPR] protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.”

Human Rights Commission, Australia

The Objective of this Review is to “examine and report on whether Australian law (Commonwealth, State and Territory) adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.”

Do atheists have the right to live their lives free of religious influence?

Don’t they deserve to be able to carry out their actions free of religious interference or religious guidance / restrictions?  Isn’t this a form of religious freedom too?

Article 18 of the ICCPR protects not only religious beliefs but those of the atheist and non-religious

I am a member of a Uniting Church (Christian). Whilst some religious people may want to refuse to service same-sex weddings due to their religious conscience, don’t all people deserve the right to refuse service if it is against their conscience, regardless of whether they are religious? For example:

  • a vegetarian waiter may refuse to serve meat dishes.
  • an advertising creative may refuse to create promotional material for nuclear weapons or land mines.
  • a solider may refuse to fight in a war he/she considers unjust or unfounded.
  • a shop assistant who is supportive of animal rights may refuse to sell anything made of leather or fur.
  • When I worked as McDonalds as a teenager, I refused to salt the burgers as there was huge publicity at the time about the harmful effects of salt on people’s health and blood pressure.


There’s a difference between Freedom of Religious Belief and Freedom of Religious Practice

“The right to hold a belief is absolute the State is not permitted to interfere with a person’s right to autonomously develop thoughts and a conscience.”

Human Rights Commission, Australia

It is generally agreed that everyone has the right to think and believe what they want. What happens inside your head is your business.

This Review is not about whether Australians have the right to believe what they want in terms of religion.

This Review is about whether Australians are allowed to act in whatever ways they want in the name of religion.

It’s about religious practice, not religious belief.


“Once a belief is manifested (that is, implemented) in action, it leaves the sphere of absolute protection, because the manifestation of a religious belief may have an impact on others.”

Human Rights Commission, Australia

Religions and religious people do affect others


Acts performed in the name of religion or religious conscience do not only affect the person who performed them, especially if they are performed in public.

This Review is about the intersection of religious freedoms with other rights.  And therefore I ask that this Review explore the right of the non-religious or atheists to live their lives free of religious influence or religious restrictions, where possible.

Freedom of Religion does not mean that one is allowed to do anything in the name of one’s religion

“But, as the European Court has stated, the right to freedom of religion ‘does not always guarantee the right to behave in public in a manner governed by that belief.’”

Human Rights Commission, Australia

  “‘Moderate’ restrictions on religion in the U.S. aren’t primarily abridgments of freedom; they’re part of the complex puzzle of governing a pluralistic political community.”

Brian Grim’s review of the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project

Australia already restricts some religious practice.

Australians generally accept this.

It is common knowledge that Australian law already places limits and restrictions on religious practice. For example, religious practices such as female circumcision, polygamy, and extreme interpretations of Sharia Law are banned in Australia.

Our community has generally accepted these restrictions.



Encourage the religious to be cautious when making public statements which may adversely affect the self-esteem or self-worth of young people

“To our shame, people like me have not spoken loudly enough against the bullying of our fellow citizens.”

Dr Michael Jensen, Rector of St Mark’s Darling Point

Where do young people learn it’s not OK to be gay? One major source is from religious organisations, including religious schools and organistions such as the Australian Christian Lobby and the Coalition for Marriage.

Why are young gay people  afraid of their future?

Why are they afraid that people won’t like them? Why are LGBTI young people five to eleven times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual young people. As Dr Michael Jensen suggests, religious people can instead help create a world where everyone belongs and feels safe..




Encourage all schools to teach students that everyone belongs, even if your religion says that these people are sinful

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017 -02-03/bullied-to-death-the-shortlife-of-tyrone-unsworth/8236156

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016 -12-05/kids-at-school-keeptelling-me-to-kill-myself-tyroneunsworth/8093910


Ban gay conversion therapy for those under 25, even if the young person consents to that therapy

“The practice of conversion therapy, whether in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity, is unethical and potentially harmful.”

National Health Service UK and Scotland, Royal College of General Practitioners, The British Psychological Society and 13 other bodies, October 2017

“[It is] a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of the affected people.”

World Health Organisation

Should religious parents/guardians be allowed to coerce young people into ‘gay cure’ programs against their will?

Even if the young person agrees to the therapy, are they too young to give full consent?

If those under 18 are not old enough to legally consent to sex, how can they be old enough to consent to changing their sexual preferences?

It may even be preferable to ban access to this therapy to those under 25, as there is evidence the young person’s brain is not fully developed until that age. Countries such as Malta have banned gay conversion therapy completely.

The Church of England has also called on the UK Government to ban ‘gay cure therapies’.



For a list of organisations which disavow this therapy worldwide see this link:


“Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing ‘Gay Cure’.


“The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.”




Ask religious organisations to specify what behaviours their employees should demonstrate inside and outside of work


The following online question is asked of prospective employees to the Salvation Army:

If successful in being appointed to this position, do you agree to promote and support the Christian values and ethos of The Salvation Army in undertaking your role?


“… teaching contracts featured clauses stipulating employees ”adhere and observe the principles and moral standings and teachings of the Catholic Church‘’.

Would a teacher in a Catholic School be allowed to express to students the same views as Catholic priest Frank Brennan?


Or would they be sacked for doing so?

What are Christian values and ethos?  What are the principles and moral standings and teachings of the Catholic Church?

As you know Christians disagree with one other, even within the same denomination. And even some Christian schools disagree with their faith’s leadership:

As there is such a wide diversity of views about what Christian values and teachings are, I ask the Review to ask all religious bodies to clearly specify on their website what their employees are allowed to say and do, both inside or outside of work.  And to include this link on all job listings.  Prospective employees need to know.

Currently, religious organisations have a blanket right to discriminate against their employees for any reason.

I ask that they only be allowed to fire or discipline employees who do not comply with a specific listing of prohibited activities as seen on that religious organisation’s website.

This list can be updated quarterly.  And any changes take 12 months to come into effect, thus allowing any current employees to find alternative employment during those 12 months.

The list should clearly show the date of update, and also allow previous versions of the lists to be viewed/downloaded to compare differences.  (This list will also help parents know whether the school has the same values as themselves.)

Can a teacher in a Christian school:

  • Attend a gay wedding as a guest?
  • Be a bride’s maid at a same-sex wedding?
  • Cook food or perform music for a gay wedding?
  • Post a congratulatory message on Facebook for a same-sex marriage.
  • Tell other teachers that they are gay? (A Perth teacher reportedly got sacked for this in 2017.)
  • Be out as gay on a Facebook page?
  • Take leave from work to support their sick gay partner?
  • Advise students that legalising same-sex marriage is for the common-good, as Father Frank Brennan has done?

If Martin Luther was a Catholic teacher in the present day, could he be sacked for his criticisms of Catholicism?  (He labelled the Catholic Church the anti-Christ.)

Please note that Christians disagree on whether or not it’s OK to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Some respected ministers of religion say it’s OK to do this (even though they do not support same-sex marriage).


Ban religions from compelling their members to exclude those who have left the religion (eg. Scientology or Exclusive Brethren)

Exclusive Brethren

“I had a knock at the door saying that we’ve excommunicated you and you’re not to sleep with your wife tonight,” says one former senior Brethren member who fell out with the then leader more than 20 years ago and hasn’t seen his wife or children since.”


“[Justice Benjamin] described the Brethren’s attempts to prevent the children seeing their estranged father, as ‘psychologically cruel, unacceptable and abusive.’

He also referred to 30 years of conflict between the Brethren and the Family Law Act.”


Jehovah’s Witnesses

“O’Brien tried to downplay this by stating that anyone is free to leave, but it is not that simple. If you leave and are “disfellowshipped” or disassociated, every single one of your family and friends are banned from talking to you under almost any circumstance. You are to be strictly shunned.”



“She says she was forced to “disconnect” from her father, who did not want to be part of the church. … I was told to disconnect from my father, that he would suppress us. I was told to write a letter to him when I was six to disconnect from him.”



Please develop guidelines for public speech


pic: Atheist Happy Thoughts

Please discourage the religious from offending others publicly.

Should a person be allowed to send offensive letters to families of dead soldiers in the name of their religion?

Should a person be allowed to stand up and interrupt a church service to voice their religious opinion on same-sex marriage (or any other religious issue)?  This happened at Pitt Street Uniting, Sydney.

The above forms of free speech do not promote social harmony in our community. I ask the Review Committee to develop guidelines for free speech for us to know when it is acceptable and unacceptable.  Just because something is said in the name of religion, doesn’t mean it’s OK to say publicly.

Please do not recommend an absolute right to free speech.

As you know, Australia doesn’t have an inherent right to free speech. And the High Court was evenly split (3-3) in deciding speech, so the issue of what forms of free speech are permissible is still up in the air.

In the US where they have the right to free speech, the Supreme Court has upheld the right of a Church to protest at military funerals. I wouldn’t want this to happen in Australia, and therefore I ask the Review committee not to recommend an absolute, 100% right to free speech in Australia.


Please enable businesses to act according to their owner’s conscience, where possible

Many of us know what it’s like to be compelled to act contrary to one’s conscience.

For example, President Donald Trump’s team had difficulty finding A-list stars to perform at his inauguration.

These performers are businesses.  Therefore, should they have been legally compelled to perform at the inauguration, as it is not legal for a business to discriminate on the grounds of one’s political views?

I ask the Review Committee to explore ways in which Australians (both religious and nonreligious) can follow their conscience, where possible.

I propose a three-fold process:

  1. Explore informal ways for businesses to say “no,” rather than giving them the legal right to discriminate against some people.
  2. In parallel, ask community groups to educate their members to allow businesses to “quietly opt out” due to conscience.
  3. Also help the religious to understand where the limits are, and why there are restrictions on what they can do in a pluralist society.

Explore ways for businesses to quietly opt out, rather than giving them the right to legally discriminate

Develop scripts and guidelines for businesses which wish to refuse service due to their conscience

Say: “I don’t have the capacity to fulfill that request”

Don’t say:  “I don’t do same-sex weddings”

I ask the Review Committee to please develop suggested scripts which businesses can say once they find out that their conscience will not allow them to serve a customer or a specific event.

By saying “I don’t have the capacity to do that event” a business owner is not lying as he/she may indeed not have the capacity to serve a certain event due to their conscience.

(The above solution would work if the number of businesses who choose to discriminate are few.  It would not work if this became common practice.)

“I think allowing the civil celebrants to quietly move out is much better than having all these [religious] exemptions that are proposed”

Mrs Shelley Argent, Parents and Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG). Hansard, page 26, Tuesday, 24 January 2017, SELECT COMMITTEE ON THE EXPOSURE DRAFT OF THE MARRIAGE AMENDMENT (SAME-SEX MARRIAGE) BILL

One of the primary roles of government is building social inclusion and engagement in our community

Allowing businesses to legally discriminate against customers works against social inclusion and social cohesion within our community.

Please don’t allow businesses to publicly advertise their discrimination

I would be against businesses being allowed to put up signs saying “We do not bake gay wedding cakes” for example.  Or:

  • This business does not service gay weddings.
  • We only sell wedding cakes to Christians.
  • We only sell wedding cakes to those who
  • have not engaged in pre-marital sex
  • We do not sell wedding cakes to divorcees.
  • We do not sell wedding cakes to inter-racial marriages, as the Bible teaches that the races should not mix.

Pastor Mark Downey says that the Bible teaches that races should not inter-marryhttp://kinsmanredeemer.com/RacemixingIsNotChristian.htm

I feel that such public signs would not be conducive to social harmony or social inclusion because:

  1. They will serve as a constant, every-day reminder that discrimination is legal against certain groups (or oneself).
  2. Businesses which put up such signs will be targeted by some individuals andgroups (for example, boycotting that business, verbal abuse, vandalism, death threats, bomb threats, and online social media attacks).

In parallel, ask community groups to educate their members to allow businesses to “quietly opt out” due to conscience

Encourage and educate people to treat businesses with compassion and understanding, should they sense a business has difficulty fulfilling their request due to their conscience

Many people in the LGBTI community have been emotionally hurt, bullied, and bashed in the past.

“[The soldiers had] found a poofter to bash. And they were buying drinks because they’d been a success.”

The witness described how one soldier had bloodied hands where skin had come off his knuckles.

“It happened that day because he had marks on his hands,” the witness said.


This can understandably make them angry, and want to stand up to any infringement on their rights, however minor. In doing so, they feel they are making a stand against all the people who have bullied them in the past.

It may be, in fact, too much to ask people who have been mistreated in the past to now act in a compassionate way towards others who now seek to discriminate against them. Nevertheless, I ask community groups to educate and reach out to their members to explain to them that some businesses will try to do this, and for the sake of the harmony of our pluralist society, to not to make a big fuss and not to bring on an anti-discrimination claim, if possible.  But instead try to sort this out over a coffee, meal, or mediation, if possible.


pic: the mule

Help the religious to understand where the limits are, and why there are restrictions on religious practice

What happens if we don’t do this?

There will be a reduction in social harmony, as there will be a backlash from the religious who feel that their rights have been trampled, over-ridden or ignored.

Approach this whole issue with kindness, gentleness, compassion and understanding.

Don’t just advise people that this is the way it is, and to “cop it sweet”.

Help the religious in business understand their anti-discrimination obligations, with understanding not coercion.

We have seen a “straight lives matter” group set up in response to same-sex marriage. By helping the religious to understand why there are restrictions on religious practice, it is my hope that we will prevent this sort of backlash response in future.  I feel that backlash (from either side) works against social harmony.

Help religions to understand that these same anti-discrimination laws protect people of faith too

For example a 2014 poll found one in four Australians held negative attitudes towards Muslims.

What would happen if businesses were free to discriminate against Muslims on the basis of religious conscience?

  1. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-23/same-sex-marriage-straight-lives-matter-rally-held-insydney/8977832
  2. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-29/one-in-four-australians-had-a-negative-attitude-towardsmuslims/5849744

Ultimately, some business owners will feel that their conscience will not allow them to comply with antidiscrimination legislation.  Assist these to move out of their business and industry.

… a 1964 [USA] Supreme Court case, where a South Carolina barbecue restaurant refused to serve black customers.

“When they got sued for discrimination, they said ‘it’s part of our religion to say that the races don’t mix — you can’t apply the civil rights law to us’,” he said.

“The Supreme Court had none of it. They said that is not a defence to a civil rights claim. You have freedom of religion, you can act on those beliefs, but not when it harms other people. It’s not a licence to discriminate.”


Assist those who feel that their religious conscience does not allow them to continue in business to move out of business, perhaps with the assistance of training, grants, and bridging loans.

If you recommend that businesses be allowed to legally discriminate, could I ask that you also provide these methods of assistance for the employees of businesses, who feel compelled to leave a certain business or organisation due to their conscience.

Develop guidelines for Religious Organisations and Religious People on ways to participate in public life, whilst respecting the right of others to exist in society, and their right to conduct their lives as they see fit without regular ridicule or criticism

“If you are going to live in a secular and diverse society you have to be able to get along with other people even if you don’t agree with their lifestyle.

If you want to live in a Christian bubble and only work with and serve Christians, fine. But you can’t work in the world and then complain that people are worldly.

Dr Mike Bird Lecturer in Theology, Ridley College, VIC

(Please note, he has said the above, even though he is not a supporter of Same-Sex Marriage)


These guidelines should also be developed for non-religious people and organisations.

In fact, if these skills and values of mutual respect had been taught in school (for example as part of a anti-bullying program), then perhaps there would be no need to teach these elementary skills to fullygrown adults.  (We saw during the marriage equality debate that there were adults on both sides who overstepped the mark and acted inappropriately.)

I think it is acceptable for religions to preach things which work against social inclusion within their places of worship.  But they should not make people feel like they don’t belong in society, by spreading such messages outside of their places of worship.

Please explain to schools and students’ parents the importance of preparing students for life within a pluralist society

“Yes I would bake a cake for my gay neighbour whom I am called to love and serve. I would also build roads for her to drive on, collect his rubbish, treat her cancer, and sell him goods and financial services just like I would my greedy heterosexual neighbour who regularly denies his workers their wages and dodges taxes.

I would not be able to call their marriage it holy, but last time I checked that wasn’t a baker’s job! Bakers should stick to the business of baking cakes and loving their neighbour with all their idolatries.”

Shane Rogerson, Minister, St. Matt’s Prahran, Melbourne


The aim of school is to prepare students for their future life after school, in the wider society.

In daily adult life, they’re going to come across people who are different from them.  They are going to have to work in teams with these people, get along and interact with them, manage and be managed by them.

It would be an incomplete education, if a school only taught its students how to participate in society with people like themselves – for example, those of the same religion.

Although parents will be allowed to take their children out of classes where same-sex marriage and homosexuality is discussed, please encourage schools to explain to parents the importance of these classes for society and for their children’s future.

Develop guidelines for media reporting that encourage social inclusion rather than exclusion


Ask the media to be cautious in how they report the acts of religious groups overseas which may affect how the religious are treated here in Australia.

The media have a responsibility to not only to inform, but also to realise that their news reporting does not exist within a neutral vacuum, but rather it can have a real tangible effect – for better or worse – on people’s lives.

Encourage the media to realise that they have a social responsibility, and that their reporting affects people’s lives.

Create spaces where people can talk freely about these issues, without fear of being labelled a racist, homophobe, etc.

I feel that for our community to grow, people have to get to know people who are different from themselves.

They have to have the opportunity to ask questions which they are ignorant of, instead of harbouring these issues within them – unanswered – due to a fear that they aren’t allowed to ask these questions out loud.

Some people are offended by questions – sometimes understandably so.  But this offence often doesn’t help the questioner understand what he/she has done wrong.  It doesn’t help to bridge understanding and resolve ignorance.

Would it be possible to create spaces (just like parliament) where people can discuss anything without fear of retribution?

The media would not be allowed to report what has been said in those places.  Those places are spaces where people can speak freely.

Hopefully they become spaces where people can learn more about other groups and people who they did not previously understand or were ignorant of.  However, I wouldn’t like these spaces to simply become a platform or breeding ground for Nazi-sympathisers for example. Maybe there can be various spaces, and one can only talk about certain topics in certain spaces.  In this way, one group would not be able to monopolise the time in every space, and a variety of topics would be discussed.


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About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)