Human Rights Ommission

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pic: Elvert Barnes

Rosalind Croucher, Head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, member of the Religious Freedom Review Panel – is missing in action on LGBTI rights

Ruddock’s report and recommendations on religious freedom were handed to the PM on May 18. But well before that, members of the review panel, including the chair of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Rosalind Croucher, attended a conference in Adelaide 14-16 Feb entitled: “Freedom of Religion or Belief: Creating the Constitutional Space for Other Fundamental Freedoms”.

The conference was dominated by Mormons, Catholics and Evangelicals with a strong bias against LGBTI rights. Firstly, it was organised by:

  • The International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Brigham Young (Mormon) University, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Utah, United States
  • Adelaide Law School, The University of Adelaide
  • School of Law, Sydney, The (Catholic) University of Notre Dame Australia

Secondly, the majority of the speakers were in favour of special religious privileges over and above the human rights of LGBTI people. 21 of the 33 speakers have either published papers or made speeches arguing for maintaining or increasing exemptions from anti-discrimination law on the basis of religion, conscience or belief, or are openly Evangelical or Mormon, and could be assumed to agree with that attitude.

The 2.00-3.30 session on Day 2 was allocated to the Ruddock Review Panel, as part of their ‘consultation’ process.

Concerns were raised about the tendency for courts and anti-discrimination tribunals to restrict the definition of what constituted a ‘religious organisation,’ narrowing the definition in such a way that charities such as the St Vincent de Paul Society would fall outside the scope of religious organisations. Consequently, they would also fall outside of protections for religious freedom provided under Australian law.

Concerns were also raised about whether religious freedom protections would be sufficient for those subjected to litigation from activists who try to use anti-discrimination laws to silence or punish individuals.

AVOIDING ANY ALTERNATIVES

Why did the panel choose to attend this conference, and why, in particular, was this ‘consultation’ held in public, on the record, when their other ‘consultations’ were held in secret, and off the record?

Why did the panel not seek to attend any non-religious conferences and events? For example, Better Together, the national conference of LGBTI group The Equality Project in Melbourne in January? A conference which aimed…

…to explore current issues facing the LGBTIQ movement, bringing together voices from indigenous communities, people with a disability, the Deaf community, as well as multicultural and multi-faith communities.

Why did no-one from Ruddock’s panel seek to attend any of the monthly meetings of the Rationalist or Humanist societies? Why the pandering to Christian groups only?

Rodney Croome, of LGBTI advocacy group just.equal, was particularly scathing about the performance of the Australian Human Rights Commission, and its head, Rosalind Croucher.

“It’s very disappointing that members of the Ruddock Panel are attending conferences dominated by people who want to roll back LGBTI equality, but not at the same time attending similar events with advocates and academics who support LGBTI equality.”

“The Commission keeps saying there should be a balance between religious freedom and LGBTI equality, but it appears to be favouring those who want to take LGBTI rights away.”

Croome pointed out that Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow had no problem organising meetings with LGBTI advocates in all capitals last year, so there’s no reason Croucher could not have originated something similar. The Human Rights Commission wouldn’t wait to be invited to talk to, say, indigenous groups, about a matter that directly threatened their rights. Former Colac-Otway mayor and proud PFLAG mum Sharyn Faulkner said

Now the LNP is speaking to The Christian Organisations about Religious Freedom (Privilege) which is fine but how about being fair and speaking to LGBTIQ people as well.  We are so going down the same path as USA and I for one don’t like it!

THE REVIEW IS ABOUT POLITICS, NOT FREEDOM

It’s important to acknowledge that the Ruddock review is, strictly speaking, unnecessary. It was conceived as a political sop to the feral religious right of the Coalition, as a means of getting marriage equality passed and off the political agenda.

Objectors concerned that marriage equality might mean they’d be forced to treat LGBTI the same as everyone else were told not to worry, the government would set up an ‘inquiry’, which would deliver them all the exemptions and ‘protections’ they had failed to insert into the marriage bill.

LGBTI advocates were suspicious from the outset. There were no LGBTI representative on the review panel, and ‘consultations’ were held in private, unlike the normal practice of public hearings. This was excused on the grounds that witnesses would be able to speak more freely. In case they were still feeling intimidated, witnesses were also assured that no record of their evidence would be kept.

DISCUSSIONS versus CONSULTATIONS

The report was delivered to the PM May 18th, but no-one outside the government has seen it, allegedly, and ‘formal consultations’ have yet to begin, according to Coalition MP Tim Wilson. Informal ‘discussions’ seem to be a different matter.

 Eternity News reports:

Discussions at senior levels in the Federal government on religious freedom have begun, after the Phillip Ruddock-led Expert Panel inquiring into the subject handed its report to the Prime Minister last week…

“We are making progress in this important work,” Professor Patrick Parkinson told a Freedom For Faith (FFF) conference in Sydney this week. “I have been kept closely in touch with the Ruddock Inquiry. I have been kept informed by the Prime Minister’s office and we have been making progress. “It is a glass half-full situation. Will we get all that we would like? No.”

Wilson claimed that

There are constant conversations with people on the many sides of this debate, including people with an interest from an LGBTI perspective.

So far I have been unable to unearth any. Senator Dean Smith, Alex Greenwich MP, and the Attorney Generals office did not respond to a request for information or comment. PFLAG founder Shelley Argent contacted the Prime Ministers office:

Let’s see what happens here!! Yesterday, I called Malcolm Turnbull’s office with a query about this issue, I asked to speak to an adviser and was told NO. I asked for an email address of an adviser and was told NO.  I didn’t ask for a third thing because I knew the answer.

LGBTI UNDER THREAT – NOT RELIGION

As Robyn J. Whitaker, Bromby Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Trinity College, University of Divinity explains, none of this is necessary:

 “Christians in Australia are not being persecuted. They have the freedom to gather and worship freely, to meet in public places, to join the army, to teach, to vote, and to be prime minister. Christians own and run vast institutions. They are still the largest religious affiliation in the country (at 52% in the 2016 census)… To claim persecution is not just historically inaccurate, it is offensive ”

Instead, the persecution is all coming the other way. New South Wales politician Fred Nile has introduced a bill into the state’s parliament that would allow for LGBTI people to be discriminated against.

The Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill (Religious Freedoms) would allow change New South Wales anti-discrimination laws so that religious bodies and individuals could refuse service to people because of their religious beliefs.

It would mean that florists, bakers and other service providers could refuse to serve gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender  people.

And from politicians in federal parliament:

Assistant Home Affairs Minister Alex Hawke… tells Fairfax Media that Australia is “absolutely” in the middle of “a new culture war”.

Hawke says the religious freedom review will “spell out how we can move forward”. “We’re all waiting for the review but we do want to see at a federal level that when the states use anti-discrimination law to overstep the mark that they’re unable to restrict people’s rights in this space.”

CROUCHER FAILING LGBTI

And where is the head of the Human Rights Commission, Rosalind Croucher, in all this? Addressing the same Freedom For Faith Conference at which Professor Parkinson boasted of the ‘discussions’ (strictly informal, of course) that the organisation was having with the Attorney General and the PM.

Freedom For Faith describes itself as “a legal think tank that protects and promotes religious freedom in Australia and beyond.” Their submission to the Religious Freedom Review was endorsed by a cavalcade of Christian organisations inimical to LGBTI rights.

  •  Australian Christian Churches (inc. Hillsong)
  • Baptists
  • Presbyterian Church of Australia
  • Seventh-Day Adventist Church
  • Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney
  • Barnabas Fund
  • Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the Uniting Church
  • Christian Reformed Churches of Australia
  • Free Reformed Churches of Australia
  • EV Church
  • Church Communities Australia
  • Sydney Chinese Christian Churches Association

During her speech to this august body, Croucher said:

Issues concerning the protection of religious freedom comprise a core area of human rights consideration and of the Commission’s ongoing work. When the Religious Freedom Review report is made public, the Commission will incorporate its findings into our future work.

Not, “when the government enacts” any of the recommendations, but “when… the report is made public.”

I find that concerning, given the extent to which Ms Croucher has immersed herself in the religious right, in a way she has not done with the LGBTI community. As Rodney Croome says,

“It’s particularly annoying that one of these Panel members is Rosalind Croucher, because she is also the President of the Human Rights Commission and should be a stronger defender of LGBTI equality.”

Given her apparent lack of even-handedness, that does not appear to be how she sees her role.

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)