The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has just released its report, Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief. The report is the result of public comment made to a 1997 discussion paper called Free To Believe? At the time I strongly encouraged all of us to put in submission. Unfortunately, the Christian community appears to be apathetic, indifferent or asleep at the wheel: the Commission received only 255 submissions, and many of these were from cults, non-Christian religions, or from groups like the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Humanist Society of Victoria, and the Pagan Alliance. Once again it seems we are allowing anti-faith and anti-family forces to set the agenda, because we couldn’t be bothered getting involved in the debate.
The report gets off to a bad start when it states that “True tolerance requires effort, commitment and the acknowledgment that those of other faiths also have real insights into truth”. (p. 2) Truth, in other words, is relative; all religions have truth; and the chief goal of society is tolerance, that is, not promoting any claim to absolute truth.
A main area of concern is the area of religious discrimination. Like so many of the anti-discrimination reports and pieces of legislation extant today, this report recommends that there should be no discrimination, except for narrowly defined exemptions. In other words, religious groups will once again be compelled to prove why they believe they should not rent to, hire or give service to groups or individuals that are hostile to their religious convictions. The recommendation says “the proposed Religious Freedom Act should make unlawful direct and indirect discrimination on the ground of religion and belief in all areas of public life”. It allows two exemptions for employment in a job or institution where there are “doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings made in good faith”. (pp. 113,114)
But how will this all be interpreted? The report states that it agrees with the recent Sexuality Discrimination report that no exceptions will be granted to any body that is “funded, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, from Commonwealth funding”. Thus groups like the Salvation Army will not be allowed to make exemptions. Nor, for example, will any Christian group involved in drug rehabilitation, if it gets government funding.
The problem is not just one of government funding, however. The report makes clear how limited these exemptions will be. It cites with full approval the recent case of the Sydney Catholic Education Office. They lost a case involving a lesbian who taught in a Catholic School. HREOC ruled that they were wrong to try to remove her from her teaching position, because “there was no evidence that the complainant had or advocated a lifestyle and values contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church”. This in spite of the fact that the lesbian was involved in pro–homosexual groups and was very publicly and vocally pushing that agenda!
One can imagine a Christian baker or book store owner asked to explain why it is wrong to hire a witch, a homosexual or an adulterer. The burden of proof will be on the Christian. Indeed, witchcraft, paganism and even atheism are defined as religions in this report, and it is recommended that all laws concerning blasphemy, paganism, sorcery and witchcraft be struck down.
Even though the report admits that Christians still make up 70 per cent of the nation, HREOC seems to want to turn this county into a place where no one belief is to be seen as any better than any other. Thus a degraded witchcraft ceremony and a Christian charity work are to be seen as co-equal expressions of religious faith, and of equal value to the community.
But why do we need such legislation in the first place? Why drag in the law when this might result in less religious freedom, not more? Indeed, other sections of the report say that coercion and vilification in any form should not be allowed. It records the words of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 that it is unlawful to “offend, humiliate or intimidate another person or group”. How will this be interpreted? If someone is offended when I witness to them in public? If in a public debate a homosexual feels vilified when a religious person expresses concern about that lifestyle? If someone finds a religious tract that says people who reject Jesus are in danger of hellfire? The possibilities are endless and mind boggling.
As Ross Prout says in New Life, “My fear is that, even with the best of intentions, legislation arising from this report may have the effect of Christians losing some of the freedoms they have enjoyed. For instance, are there going to be restrictions on sharing the gospel with people of other faiths? The leaders of non-Christian religions would undoubtedly be delighted if their religious freedom were to be interpreted as freedom from the advances of Christian workers seeking to proselytise their people.”
In the end, this report is not so much about freedom to believe, but freedom from belief.