Once upon a time, there was a childless atheist woman Prime Minister living in sin, who was slated to address the national conference of the Australian Christian Lobby. Go figure. The title of this conference was “Religious Freedom in a Secular Democracy”.
I decided I’d write the speech she should give them. I thought it might help her to cut through, as the saying goes. But before I could send it along to the Lodge for perusal, she pulled out. She never did talk to the Lobby. Now Kevin Rudd is PM, I thought I’d dust off that speech, give it a few tweaks, and see if he could use it.
I would have him say that religious freedom’s a good thing to have. Everyone can worship as they choose, or not at all, without interference from anyone else, and certainly not from the state. But, he would point out, it’s not a one-way street. In return, religions must play their part, by not interfering in government.
That means that the laws of Australia are not built, and should not be built, on the basis of religious belief, but on the basis of rational debate and good public policy. On what is good for the nation as a whole.
Religions are free to make whatever rules for their own members as may seem fitting, according to their beliefs. But they cannot seek to impose the views of one religion on people of other religions, or of no religion at all. To do so would be unjust. Dare I say, unAustralian.
This is what freedom of religion means: you are free to practise your faith without interference from others, provided you yourself do not interfere with others.
That includes people with whom you do business, people you employ, employers you work for, government agencies you interact with – anyone, and everyone.
If you offer goods and services to the state or to the public, you do so under the law of the land and the regulations laid down for that industry. If complying with those laws and regulations conflicts with the requirements of your religion, you are free to go into some other business that does not challenge your conscience.
Likewise if you are an employee in a business which requires you to act in a manner you perceive to be in conflict with your faith, you are free to follow your conscience and seek alternative employment.
But you are not free to demand that the government or an employer bend to accommodate your faith. To give you special rights and privileges. And then demand that the rest of us pay for them, through tax exemptions. Because that is imposing your rules on others, and restricting their freedom to follow their consciences.
You should of course be free to seek exemptions on a case by case basis, if you feel these requirements to be especially injurious. But in general, the law should apply equally to everyone.
We have a fine Christian heritage in this country.That’s how we ended up with the notion of religious freedom. The concept is seldom, for example, found in Muslim countries, where religion and law are often one and the same.
Australians are now of many religions: Christian, in all it’s many flavours, of which the Lobby represents one faction; Muslim, also a many-stranded faith; Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and no doubt many more. Many Australians get along fine with no religion at all. I happen to be a Christian, but whatever my personal beliefs, I must be Prime Minister for all Australians, religious and secular. Not just some.
Right now in Egypt we are witnessing what happens when one group – even with support of almost half the population – seeks to impose its religion-derived rules on a pluralistic society. How much more divisive it would be to attempt something similar, by imposing a narrow interpretation of one reading of Christian rules on our Australian rainbow nation.
In a multi-cultural, multi-faith, post-Christian society like ours, I know how hard it is for some older and more rigid members of society to accept that their faith is now one among many, instead of being, as it once was, the official and dominant creed.
That can no longer be, if we in Australia are to live together in harmony. To ask for your rules to be enshrined in law, over all others, is to foment division and discord, to set Australian against Australian.
As Prime Minister, it is my duty to make sure this does not happen. So although I may occasionally disappoint you, I would ask you to do the Christian thing, to think of others, and to choose the path of peace and harmony with your neighbours. Religious and secular. Whether you agree with them or not.
Because we all want, as far as possible, to lead a happy, useful and productive life, in harmony with our neighbours. We don’t get that if we lock people out, shut the doors. We get that by inviting people in. By listening. By sharing each others griefs and happinesses.
This is our best chance of a productive and happy life. Thus far, however, many of us have been intent on keeping some people out. Of denying others their shot at happiness.
When you or I choose our life partner, and make a commitment to support each other through life, there is celebration among family, friends, co-workers, even whole towns. We hold public ceremonies, parties; give gifts, dance, sing. Even the government comes to the party, recognising that such commitments represent commitments not just to one another, but to society as a whole.
But when gay men and lesbians, transgender and intersex people, choose their life partners, instead of celebrating, we erect barriers. We make their lives harder and more complex, instead of simpler and more rewarding. For which, I am very sorry.
And this runs right through all our institutions, through governments and businesses, through clubs and societies, through sporting teams and RSLs, through medicine, law, the arts, religion.
Labor has begun the work of dismantling this monstrous edifice of prejudice and exclusion, and we have achieved much. But much more remains still to be done.
If Labor stands for anything, it stands for equality. Labor stands or falls by its inclusion of everyone. A commitment to an Australian society in which everyone gets a fair go. In which no-one looks down on others because of who they are, or who they love.
I used to do that. I now admit I was wrong, and I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry that, when kids all over Australia were growing up, falling in love, announcing that love to the world and inviting us to share in their joy and celebration, we said no. No, we won’t celebrate with you. We won’t celebrate, dance, sing.
We wish you every happiness, of course, but please don’t throw your love in our faces. To be perfectly frank, we don’t want to even see your happiness, let alone celebrate it.
We can’t stop you bringing your partner to the annual Christmas dinner, though we’d rather you didn’t, if you don’t mind. We’ll feel uncomfortable. It’d be selfish of you, making the rest of us uncomfortable like that. And we don’t want our kids (who might be gay themselves, though we hope not), to get the idea that it’s OK to do what you’ve done. We don’t want you looking happy in front of them.
I’m sorry to say this is what many of us are still doing. Still saying no. Still refusing to celebrate, to dance, to sing.
This is wrong. How dare we tell these fine young people that they’re not good enough to be one of us. Of course they are. That they don’t deserve all the help and support we can give them – that we give every Australian – to settle down, get married, raise a family, to live a full and happy life. Of course they do.
How dare we refuse to dance at their wedding. How dare we refuse them a wedding at all.
Well, this ends now. We will make history. We will build a monument to love and inclusion that will last through the ages. One that is built on the solid Labor values of a fair go for all. As I said once before – and I’ve never been allowed to forget it – a fair shake of the sauce bottle. Whatever its flavor.