PETER JOHNSTONE. Is religious freedom code for a licence to discriminate?

Jun 5, 2019

Just one worrying aspect of current talk that religious freedom needs to be legislated is that the need is rarely explained. There is vague reporting of the ‘right’ of religious schools to teach faith-based doctrine. This begs the question as to what these schools want to teach that they think is at risk. It seems that this is code for teachings that devalue people of LGBTIQ sexual orientation.

Our newly elected federal government has reportedly decided to prioritise religious freedom legislation to protect religious institutions from being accused of discrimination. And it seems that the Labor Party may well support this legislation, at least one front-bencher strangely perceiving some religious rejection in their electoral defeat.

The matter has been the subject of some recent public discussion in the context of a top Rugby player being sacked for publicly stating that homosexuals will go to hell. Such statements are clearly intended to vilify a vulnerable group in our community and cannot be tolerated from a moral perspective, quite apart from the contractual issues involved or the genuinely held view of the person concerned, albeit both naïve and dangerous. Would we accept as a community any public figure saying all females should go to hell, or that all of a certain race should be damned, or that redheads should be shunned?

Some religions may well teach such ignorant views, but a good society should not tolerate the public and cavalier condemnation of classes of people (based on their God-given characteristics!) and certainly should not give legislative protection to the public expression of those views. There is no moral or other justification for protecting vilification of any gender, or any sexual orientation – and religious beliefs certainly do not justify such protection.

Religions have traditionally claimed a role in ensuring that the best values are practised by communities and teaching that all be treated with respect and indeed love. Is discrimination now part of religious beliefs or doctrine and are religions now to be legally protected in practising discrimination against others? Governments’ obligations to protect their citizens cannot be waived to allow harm to be done by religions.

I am puzzled by any suggestion that people of faith need religious freedom legislation. As a Christian adult with many years as an Australian Catholic citizen, parent and grandparent, I have never felt a lack of religious freedom and on those few occasions that my faith has been questioned by others, I’ve been quite happy to share the reasons for my faith without feeling any oppression.

Where is this demand for religious discrimination coming from? I know of many Catholic schools that accept diverse sexual orientation among their students and teach tolerance of diversity, as they should in keeping with their Christian beliefs. The Catholic hierarchy, in claiming all sorts of exemptions on the grounds of religious freedom, are out of step with the leadership, staff and parent groups of those Catholic schools who have actually had in place for years appropriately respectful policies, protocols and practices.

It seems that some religious leaders live in fear of attacks from an increasingly secular society. If so, the traditional Christian response would be to ‘turn the other cheek’ and let our Christian behaviour be judged on its merits. One might wonder if recent claims by religious leaders of societal prejudice are in fact driven by an obsessive attempt to distract a scandalised community from the humiliation of clerical child sexual abuse. Of course, that scandal resulted from hypocrisy in religion, protecting paedophiles and putting children at risk. Perhaps religions should focus on getting their houses in order and thus earn the respect of our secular society – that would be simply practising their faith.

Much of the religious freedom push seems to focus on a continuing, perhaps remnant, rejection of homosexuality in some religions including my own. This is despite the Australian people, including a majority of Catholics, making it very clear that they saw no room for discrimination against those of LGBTIQ sexual orientation when subjected to a survey on marriage equality in 2017. The Australian people have generally shown a true acceptance of others regardless of differences, an acceptance in keeping with the fundamental doctrine of love that permeates most religions and is the very basis of all teachings of Jesus.

Regrettably, the Catechism of the Catholic Church relies on a limited interpretation of Scripture, presenting homosexual acts as “acts of grave depravity” and claims that ‘tradition’ declares that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” The Catechism further states that homosexual acts “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” and describes homosexual tendencies and inclinations as “objectively disordered”. This teaching could cause considerable distress to people of LGBTIQ sexual orientation, particularly young people in Catholic schools.

The Catechism also notes however that those of homosexual orientation “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” That mutual respect is reflected in modern society, as illustrated by the marriage equality legislation passed by Australian and other parliaments throughout the world. The Catholic Church needs to fix this ambiguity in its teaching and dissociate itself from the move to protect unjust religious discrimination of LGBTIQ people.

Freedom of thought and religion is of course fundamental to a democratic society. Australians already enjoy that freedom of thought and religion. The proposed legislation seems to be about a licence to discriminate against LGBTIQ persons, sadly using religion as an excuse. There is a real danger that these laws could lead to young LGBTIQ people, already vulnerable to some ill-informed prejudice, being damaged by explicit rejection of their sexual being in religious schools. This would undo much of the social gains of marriage equality – perhaps that is what the proponents of this mooted legislation for ‘religious freedom’ really want.

Peter Johnstone is a member of Catholics for Renewal Inc.

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