More Religious Freedom is Bad Policy

by Mike Licht

Tim Wilson, the Human Rights Commissioner, is about to hold a round table on religious freedom. The idea is “to bring together representatives of different faiths to discuss how to advance religious freedom in Australia.”

Wilson goes on to say that “given the number of faith based and other interest groups who will want to take part, the format of the roundtable will be designed to engage with a variety of stakeholders at different times to address issues relevant to religious freedom.”

So the initial God-dominated panel will be followed in February by a roundtable of atheists/agnostics/non-believers freedom, and by a clutch of LGBTI groups at some future date.

Wilson is also ‘LGBTI Rights Commissioner’ (purely by virtue of his sexuality), who supports equal marriage. This puts him at odds with the religious right, who think it will challenge their rights and freedoms.

Wilson has floated the idea of ‘competitive marriage’, where organisations would create their own model marriage contracts from which individuals could choose the one that best suited them. He has also spoken about a modified version of the ‘French model’, where only marriages carried out by the state are legal and religious weddings are an optional extra with no legal force. Except in his version, religions could still carry out legal marriages, but discriminate in as to who would be eligible.

Both options suffer from the same fatal flaw: they create an apartheid system, with different laws, different marital contracts, and different levels of accessibility, for different individuals and groups. This is hardly compatible with his role as ‘Freedom Commissioner’.

The whole point of marriage equality is that the law must be exactly the same regardless of the sex, gender, or sexuality of the partners. It follows therefore that neither of these suggested compromises is much use.

There are fears in the LGBTI community that the roundtable will be used by religious extremists from the likes of the Sydney Anglican Church, Hillsong (and other evangelical outfits), and above all the Roman Catholic Church, to stake a claim for even more freedoms, exemptions and privileges than they already have. This would be a catastrophe. We ought rather to be talking about winding back the ones they currently have.

Australia is a modern, pluralistic, multicultural society. The Catholic and Protestant churches are some of the remains of the old (and largely white) Christian establishment, who have yet to lose the habit of thinking that they should make the rules for everyone else. But times have changed. Now they are but two factions competing in the religious marketplace, on an equal footing with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as the newer Evangelical mega-churches and other denominations, such as Scientology, or Flying Spaghetti Monster. They can’t expect to enforce their rules on those of other beliefs, or indeed, none.

Religious privileges carry over into the business sphere, where they create a grievously distorted marketplace. Government subsidies and legal exemptions tilt the playing field towards religious businesses, and away from the secular. Religions and their subsidiaries who run their own schools, universities, colleges, hospitals, clinics, aged care businesses (and much else besides – Weetbix, anyone?), do not have to obey anti-discrimination laws regarding whom they serve or employ. They are also exempt from paying the rates and taxes that burden the rest of us.

These freedoms give religious businesses an unfair advantage – at taxpayers expense – to the tune of an estimated $31 billion a year in taxes and rates foregone. Religions reap further massive income in government payments for religious schools, and other state and federal services outsourced to them.

Why give them more?

The Catholic church is already one of our biggest employers, competing with a host of secular businesses in health, aged care, education and more. Its inbuilt cost advantages are a barrier to new entrants trying to compete.

The newer churches, whose record of philanthropy is patchy at best, don’t even have the established churches excuse of ‘doing good works’. What is Hillsong besides a massive tax-free business with better salesmanship than conventional churches? What does it do with all that tax-free money, besides building very ritzy ‘worship centres’ with state of the art equipment? Build homeless shelters and low cost housing?

Let us not be bamboozled: all religions are businesses, albeit with intangible and undeliverable products. The state has no business propping them up with taxpayers money and revenue forgone, or exempting them from laws. Australia is a secular state. The Commonwealth should not take sides.

I need hardly add that in education and child care in particular, religions have abused those privileges for years, along with many thousands of the children and young people entrusted to their care. For this alone, they should be losing privileges, not clamouring for more.

Schools and colleges should be strictly secular. They should not be run by religions, nor teach religion, except as an academic discipline. Religious activity should take place in the community, outside educational hours and premises. By all means teach about faiths, plural. But do not proselytise or convert.

When pupils are segregated into Catholic, Protestant, Islamic etc., schools, it promotes division and disharmony, directly at odds with the need to form a cohesive multicultural, multi-faith society. That cohesion can only be built in free, secular schools and colleges.

None of this impinges on religious freedom. Religions would still be free to teach their faith to their adherents and their children, in their own time; to run religious schools, hospitals etc.; but with their own money. If they wish to compete for government contracts, they must provide them on a strictly secular non-discriminatory basis, and with no unfair cost advantage. They must be weaned from the taxpayers teat.

They can’t have their cake and eat it. There is indeed an ‘imbalance’ between ‘religious freedom’ and the rights of the rest of us. Religious privileges must be pruned in order to restore it.

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)