Religious Freedom or Religious Supremacy?
pic: Johnny Jet

Protecting religious freedom is not, in itself, a bad idea. But as Ian Robinson of the Rationalist Society says, “The problem with the proposed legislation is that it is indiscriminate: it gives tacit approval to all and any abomination as long as it can claim roots in religious belief.”

The need for reform

At present we have a hodge-podge of legislation, with plenty of gaps and contradictions. The architecture of Australian rights and freedoms legislation is like an old house that has suffered many well-meaning renovations and extensions at the hands of many different owners. The result is an ugly mess, with gaps where the wind whistles through and the termites get in.

Certain types of religious people feel exposed to the elements: so, incidentally, do many LGBTI folk.

To anything approaching a logical mind, the obvious answer is an all-encompassing Federal Bill of Rights. Most western countries have one: Australia doesn’t.

Problem neatly solved. Tear down the rambling old mansion that is no longer fit for purpose, and build a nice new modern vermin-proof house.

Instead the government, like a Bangladeshi garment manufacturer, is adding extra floors and rooms that could collapse the whole edifice.

This jerry-built solution is aimed at the wrong problem, designed, not to improve human rights and discrimination law for all Australians, but to shut up members of their own party, and punish the LGBTI community.

Affronted superiority and cold revenge

We got less, and we’re about to get even less.

Equality opponents managed to partially cripple the same-sex marriage legislation, landing us with one of the most unequal equal marriage acts in the world. But they couldn’t kill it altogether. so they went away and fashioned “religious freedom” into a chisel to chip away as many of our rights as they can.

They are affronted by the notion that they are no better and no worse than a pack of poufs and dykes. They (meaning, in this instance, Erica Betz) didn’t like Tasmanian Archbishop Porteus being asked to keep a civil tongue in his head when he dog-whistled about ‘messing with children’ in his anti-marriage equality brochure.

(Incidentally, this was a spectacularly tone-deaf effort, coming from a Catholic Archbishop. It almost sounded as if he saying that ‘messing with marriage’ and ‘messing with children’ was best left to the experts like him.)

These high-minded Pharisees want to be praised for denigrating people like us, not jailed. So if these measures should pass, statements based on religious belief that offend, humiliate, insult or intimidate women, LGBTIQ+ people or persons with disabilities will be lawful, regardless of state laws.

There’s a specific override of Tasmanian anti-discrimination law. Now Archbishops will be able to accuse us of ‘messing with children’ with impunity – provided they can show they were driven by sincere religious conviction.

Folau’s Folly

The Attorney-General has admitted that other provisions are designed to address the Folau Problem. But the proposed solution would erect a Folau’s Folly in its place.

On the one hand, religious employees would be able to sound off about the idolators, jezebels and sodomites among their colleagues without fear of penalty. On the other hand, the top end of town must have its bottom line protected.

So they propose handing Big (but not small) Business a “Get Out Of Jail” card. If religious loudmouths are hurting their profitability, they can be dumped.

You can see how deliciously nasty this could get. Alan Jones at Qantas just rings up Rugby Australia and says ‘Sack him or we pull our sponsorship’, and <<pouff>>, where’s your religious freedom of expression now, Izzy? Sorry mate, it was just too expensive.

The issue of religious freedom of expression in the workplace is set to become a battle between the “Bible and the bottom line” if a draft bill passes Parliament.

The proposed laws aim to protect religious freedom but also allows large companies to sack a worker for their personal views, if it can be proven there’s an unreasonable financial impact.

Religious academics say that rule was clearly put in place in response to the sacking of Rugby star Israel Folau, but argue it pits money against free speech.”


But joking aside, do they seriously want to, in effect, strip employers of their right to fire, and hand it to their sponsors and customers?

Protecting holy mobs

Another target of the proposed legislation is the exclusion zones around medical facilities providing services such as abortion, or assisted dying.

State laws that protect women and the relatives of the dying from harassment by mobs of religious zealots waving plastic foetuses could be ignored. If these laws pass, the ‘freedom to manifest their faith’ would let them resume their distressing performances.

It’s even possible the ‘freedom to manifest’ law might allow Catholic priests to ignore state laws requiring them to break the seal of the confessional. Clerical paedophiles will be dancing in the cathedral aisles.

The proposals show clear signs of someone looking at Donald Trump’s recent anti-LGBTI moves and saying, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea!’ Not.

Hypocritical Oath v “Faith”

Soon to be seen on a GPs door?

“Religious beliefs” could also allow individual doctors to refuse abortion, assisted suicide, transgender care, IVF and surrogacy for same-sex couples. Pharmacists could refuse to dispense condoms, contraceptives, puberty blockers, morning after pills, hormones.

I find it appalling that anyone involved in patient care should be able to dictate which services they will, and will not provide, and to whom. As a wise professor of medicine once said, “If your conscience will not allow you to provide certain services or treat certain patients, your remedy is simple. Find another profession.”

Incidentally, medical professionals no longer swear the Hippocratic Oath, or any binding oath. Instead, medical schools mostly write their own non-binding declarations.

In 1948, the 2nd General Assembly of the World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Geneva, appearing below as amended:


I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity . . .

I will practice my profession with conscience and dignity;

The health of my patient will be my first consideration;

I will respect the secrets that are confided in me . . .

I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;

I will maintain the utmost respect for human life;

I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat . . . .

And there is no excuse for protecting discrimination by institutions as a whole on ‘conscience’ grounds. Only people have consciences: businesses, schools, universities and hospitals don’t.

“The bill is careful to cover both belief and lack of belief, but the exemptions are worrying. Religious charities are exempted, as is any conduct in direct compliance with commonwealth or state legislation. This latter might provide the Chaplaincy Program (clearly discriminatory against people of no religion) with a get-out-of-jail-free card.” (Rationalist Society)

What else might end up being permitted as ‘manifesting’ your religious beliefs? Conversion therapy? Female Genital Mutilation?

The big battleground: Education
pic: Atheist Happy Thoughts

But the major battleground will undoubtedly be education.

A Facebook troll recently commented on one of my posts “You just want to get your filthy hands on the kiddies, you nasty pervert.”

No dear, you’re mistaking me for a priest or imam or rabbi. But in a way – though not the way she meant – she was quite correct.

We will never achieve equality through changing the minds of people like her. Because you can’t. It can only be achieved, eventually, through the education of children. And “religious rights” should not stand in our way.

The rights in section 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights include the right to educate one’s children according to your religious beliefs. But it is not an unconditional right. Governments can limit any religious freedom, including this one, if it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”.

The government can if it wishes intervene, even in religious schools, to insist they do not teach doctrines that threaten “the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. Including LGBTI. And it can certainly insist they teach about LGBTI lives, relationships and history in state schools, as the UK government does.

The Catholic church – and other religious educators – want the right to insist that every teacher, regardless of whether they teach religious studies or algebra, “models” the life of their faith. So, no LGBTI, no single mums, no divorcees, no members of other faiths, and so on.

In practice, most religious schools, including Catholic ones, are more pragmatic. They can’t always find good Catholic heterosexual teachers, and are forced to use better quality LGBTI ones instead. But they insist on forcing them to live a lie.

“Elenie Poulos, a Uniting Church minister and doctoral researcher in religion at Macquarie University in Sydney, warns that gay and lesbian staff in faith-based schools and agencies are at risk if the government broadens exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

“The Uniting Church certainly accepts the minimum requirement that churches need to be able to appoint leaders, ministers, principals and chaplains [who support the religious ethos],” she says. “But if you’re running a school, you want the most qualified teacher, regardless of other factors.”

 “If you’re a gay teacher in Catholic school,” says Poulos, “there are probably lots of places where no one makes a fuss. But there are others where you don’t speak openly about your sexuality.”

In many conservative Protestant and evangelical schools, she says LGBT staff “self-censor and don’t refer to their partners”

I’m fairly certain that an out, confident LGBTI teacher would be a far better role model than a scared, secretive, cowed and neutered one, religious or not. Butb that woukld spoil their little fantasy. In their world, only heterosexuals are allowed to be free and happy, so they make sure we are locked in closets and made miserable to prove their point.

Who’s on our side?

Equality Australia, trying to sit on the fence as usual, merely wants the bills delayed to “make sure that amendments to the sex discrimination act are passed that protect LBTQI+ people from vilification and hate speech.”

Legal spokesperson Carnie said that the remedy would be to introduce protections similar to the contentious Section 18C that exists within the Racial Discrimination Act, which the government unsuccessfully attempted to water down in the previous parliament.

Gay Liberal MP Tim Wilsons alma mater, the Institute of Public Affairs is completely opposed, saying no new legislation is warranted.

“The government should not legislate for the Folau case. Bad laws cannot be fixed by imposing more bad laws. It is not ‘conservative’ to legislate for freedom,” the IPA executive director, John Roskam, said

The Federation of Islamic Councils is opposed to the government proposals: they want religious protection via the sort of charter of rights that exists in New Zealand and Canada. Funnily enough, LGBTI people see a Bill of Rights as the way forward, too.

And while not being on our side, neither the Catholic Church nor the Australian Christian Lobby want these reforms, and boycotted the launch at the Grand Synagogue. They want much more power than this mess would give them.

Truth before Myth

Ian Robinson of the Rationalist Society says we should be promoting truth, not protecting myths.

Many of our laws put restrictions on all of us for the sake of curbing the worst human instincts. Most people drive safely, but we need laws against speeding to protect the community from ‘hoons’. Most gun owners use their weapons responsibly, but we need gun ownership restrictions to protect the community from homicidal maniacs.

Similarly, most religious people use their freedom to express their religious beliefs benignly, by advocating loving your neighbour, giving alms to the poor and so on. But we need restrictions on freedom of religion to protect ourselves from the religious extremists. To say that all religious expression should be permitted because most religious people are benevolent is to miss the point. Some are not. The problem with the proposed legislation is that it is indiscriminate: it gives tacit approval to all and any abomination as long as it can claim roots in religious belief. 

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)