Freedom of religion

So much for the “Freedom Commissioner”

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Less than three years after the Coalition government appointed Tim Wilson as the “Freedom Commissioner“, Attorney-General George Brandis has now appointed someone from an organisation which has repeatedly been on the wrong side of debates on freedoms, and public policy more generally.

This is just some of what the Public Interest Advocacy Centre – led by the new Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow – has said in recent years:

Freedom of speech:

PIAC has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision not to proceed with proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act…

‘Freedom of speech is a crucial human right but so too is the right not to be vilified on the basis of your race or ethnicity. Serious race-based insult, offence and humiliation can be deeply wounding and threatens important aspects of Australia’s liberal democracy,’ said Edward Santow, PIAC’s CEO.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders:

PIAC generally supports the proposal for a statement of values or recognition, which appropriately recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution… PIAC submits that constitutional protection is imperative to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians against racial discrimination.

Freedom of religion:

We oppose, in particular, the granting of blanket exemptions to churches and religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws.

Suing Coles for its “discriminatory” website:

“Ms Mesnage relies on a screen-reader to use the internet. Like many people who are blind or have a vision impairment, she has had ongoing problems using the Coles website to do her shopping since 2008,” PIAC CEO, Edward Santow said.

Pro Bono Australia News reported in October 2014 that after negotiations with Coles failed to bring about a solution, Mesnage brought legal proceedings against the supermarket chain under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

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Free speech and open debate under threat from anti-discrimination laws

Archbishop Julian Porteous, the subject of a complaint to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner

It is deeply disturbing that a Catholic archbishop is being dragged to an anti-discrimination authority for simply expressing a traditional view on the subject that until quite recently was shared by both the major political parties as well as a large segment of the population. This exposes religious organisations to attack from outsiders and leaves their practices and beliefs unguarded.

If religious organisations can be punished for simply expressing their traditional views on marriage, family and a child’s right to a father and mother, then I wonder what else they and their followers might be punished for once same-sex marriage is legalised in Australia.

Before a plebiscite on same-sex marriage can even take place in this country, it is necessary to address the intolerable impact that anti-discrimination laws are having on free speech. As a society we really need to ask ourselves if we should undermine the rights of one group in order to protect or promote the interests of another.

A real democracy – and we must never forget this – requires that controversial issues will be resolved by the people only after a truly open and robust debate has taken place.

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It should never be a crime to offend a person

Reported today in The Australian:

Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher said it was “truly alarming” that any Australian would face proceedings before a tribunal for stating traditional Christian ­beliefs.

“Catholics, like the overwhelming majority of Aus­tralians, support freedoms of religion and speech,” Archbishop Fisher said. “Just as no one should be ­ridiculed or demeaned in the ­marriage debate, so too no one should be dragged before tribunals merely for stating one side of that debate.”

He said fair-minded readers of the bishops’ booklet “Don’t Mess With Marriage” would see that it was carefully worded and compassionate, and not designed to provoke or hurt.

… The commission’s decision was also attacked by champions of freedom of speech.

“This case highlights the ­attack on free speech represented by anti-discrimination law — it should never be a crime to offend a person,” said Simon Breheny, of free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

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Remembering Menzies’ wise words on religious liberty

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The Victorian government’s relentless push to broaden anti-discrimination laws continue, no matter what stands in the way.

In September, I noted how the Labor party’s view of “equality” was concerned more with special privileges for some, and diminished liberties for others. The most recent effort concerns ruling out a proposed exemption for religious organisations in legislation that would permit same-sex adoptions.

A faith-based adoption organisation is fundamentally concerned with where a child is placed, and the nature of the family involved. The proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws run directly counter to these organisations ability to conscientiously carry out a worthwhile service. This is problematic to say the least.

This week, Attorney-General George Brandis opened a roundtable on freedom of religion, where he quoted Robert Menzies from one of his Forgotten People broadcasts in 1942. The transcript in full is worth reading, but one quote in particular struck me as especially timely:

… religious freedom for which the Scottish Covenanters fought was freedom for all, Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile, and that to deny it was to go back to the dark ages of man. Religious persecution was the denial of freedom. Freedom of worship is the victorious enemy of persecution.

And so I revert to the theme of my broadcast on the first freedom – that freedom, if it is to mean anything, must mean freedom for my neighbour as well as for myself. There is nothing defiant or sectional about a demand for genuine freedom of worship, which is freedom for all.

The Victorian government’s view of equality undermines religious freedom, and is fundamentally anti-liberty. Menzies’ wise words are worth remembering.

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Beware any government committed to “anti-discrimination”

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Victoria’s Equality Minister Martin Foley

 

The Victorian state government is grandiosely committed to expanding anti-discrimination laws throughout the state, and is prepared to throw aside any freedom it sees to achieve it.

Prohibitions on peaceful speech and coercive powers to restrict religious liberty and freedom of association are all on the cards, as the government sets a course to ‘put equality back on the agenda in Victoria‘.

For this government, “equality” means special rights for some people, and diminished liberties for others. Doesn’t that sound a little discriminatory?

Just last week, the government gave its support to prohibitions on singing and displaying certain materials around particular favoured buildings. In this new age of anti-discrimination, the right to walk around certain buildings without seeing something disagreeable is paramount to freedom of speech.

Earlier this week, the Attorney-General not only failed to reject, but will consider extraordinary proposals from some “human rights” groups to give the state equal opportunity commission the power to conduct its own investigations, without first needing to receive a complaint. For some, equal opportunity laws are so essential that they must also be easy to enforce – so easy in fact, that the burden of proof is placed on the accused person to make their case, while also relieving that person of the right to silence.

That this did not immediately raise multiple flags with the first law officer of the Crown is worrying, to say the least.

The government’s view of religion and free association is also particularly concerning. Over the weekend, the state’s very own Minister for Equality, Martin Foley, “rubbished” the possibility of a religious exemption in legislation that would allow same-sex couples to adopt children. In ruling out the sort of exemptions other state’s provide, Foley said ‘let’s be clear: this is 2015’.

This, in conjunction with the Labor party’s commitment to make it next to impossible for private, faith-based schools to selectively employ people who share their values, sends a clear message: Freedom of speech, association and holding to a religious belief are a thing of the past, and rights to non-discrimination must now reign supreme.

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Anti-discrimination laws defeat religious liberty again

File - In this March 10, 2014 file photo, Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips decorates a cake inside his store, in Lakewood, Colo. Phillips, who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, is to argue Tuesday, July 7, 2015 before the Colorado Court of Appeals that his religious beliefs should protect him from sanctions against his business. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

In March, I wrote about the mythical conflict between religious liberty and the spurious freedom to non-discrimination. There, I cited the case of a Christian baker in Colorado, US, who was found to violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

This week, an appeals court affirmed an order from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that Jack Phillips had breached the Anti-Discrimination Act, and ruled in effect that a bakery owned by a Christian could not lawfully refuse to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples. Todd Starnes writes:

As it stands – Jack will be required by the government to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. If he denies anyone service, he will be required to explain why. He is also expected to retrain his staff in the state’s anti-discrimination policies – including his 88-year-old mother.

The decision was legally and logically incorrect – there is no doubt on the facts that Phillips was motivated by a religious objection to the wedding itself, and not the sexual orientation of the complainants, which the law ‘protects’.

More concerning is what the decision is indicative of. As in Victoria, religious freedom around the world is increasingly being seen as a subsidiary right, and rights to non-discrimination – with the accompanying coercive power of the state – are taking priority.

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‘Conservative’ MP calls for anti-terror laws to enforce social values

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Conservative MP Mark Spencer

We have often pointed out that what is introduced as “anti-terror” policy is regularly used for economic regulation. The Australian government’s mandatory data retention scheme, for instance, was always intended to empower economic regulators as much as it was security agencies.

In the United Kingdom, one Conservative Party MP would like anti-terror laws to spill all the way over to managing social philosophy:

New banning orders intended to clamp down on hate preachers and terrorist propagandists should be used against Christian teachers who teach children that gay marriage is “wrong”, a Tory MP has argued.

Mark Spencer called for those who use their position in the classroom to teach traditionalist views on marriage to be subject to “Extremism Disruption Orders” (EDOs), tough new restrictions planned by David Cameron and Theresa May to curb radicalisation by jihadists.

National security is a fundamental responsibility of government, and few could deny the importance of anti-terror measures. However, such laws are too often used by politicians and regulators who have a very different idea of the appropriate limits of government action than those who introduced the laws in the first place.

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Tasmanian upper house to debate anti-discrimination amendments

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Tasmanian Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff

The Legislative Council of Tasmania will today debate amendments to possibly the most restrictive anti-discrimination laws in the country.

The laws in question concern the rights of religious schools to selectively admit students based on their religious belief.

This is important for religious schools. Being compelled to admit students who do not share their faith weakens the character of the school, and diminishes their ability to immerse their students in a religious education expected from parents.

Under the current Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, sections 55A and 55B require faith-based schools to request permission from the state Andi-Discrimination Commissioner to give preference in enrolments to students who share the faith of the school. Most schools are unable to meet the requirements, and those that could are discouraged by the regulatory burden.

Last month, education minister Jeremy Rockliff introduced the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2015, which replaces the burdensome sections 55A and 55B with 51A, a general exemption for religious school. This will bring the law more in line with all other Australian jurisdictions.

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Religious liberty and the secular state: the Canadian approach

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The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa.

A recent case in the Canada’s highest court has unanimously rejected an attempt by a provincial government to force a private schools to teach from a secular perspective.

Here are some of the most important excepts from the judgment:

Freedom of religion means that no one can be forced to adhere to or refrain from a particular set of religious beliefs. This includes both the individual and collective aspects of religious belief… The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state. The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences… But a secular state does not — and cannot — interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.

Loyola is a private Catholic institution. The collective aspects of religious freedom — in this case, the collective manifestation and transmission of Catholic beliefs — are a crucial part of its claim. The Minister’s decision requires Loyola to teach Catholicism, the very faith that animates its character, from a neutral perspective. Although the state’s purpose is secular, this amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about its own religion in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding. This demonstrably interferes with the manner in which the members of an institution formed for the purpose of transmitting Catholicism can teach and learn about the Catholic faith. It also undermines the liberty of the members of the community who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school.

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Michael Gove in defence of Christianity

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On this Good Friday, I found particular enjoyment in reading Michael Gove’s article in The Spectator.

In his defence of Christianity, the Chief Whip of the British government outlined how it emphasises the importance and intrinsic value of the individual, and why it has been essential in movements to defend human liberty:

Christianity encourages us to see that, while all of us are prey to weakness, there is a potential for good in everyone. Every individual is precious. Christianity encourages us to look beyond tribe and tradition to celebrate our common humanity. And at every stage in human history when tyrants and dictators have attempted to set individuals against one another, it has been Christians who have shielded the vulnerable from oppression. It was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Christian-inspired White Rose movement that led the internal opposition to Hitler’s rule. It was the moral witness of the Catholic church in Poland that helped erode Communism’s authority in the 1980s.

You can read the rest of Gove’s article here.

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