The debate over religious freedom has become an ideological battleground. Scan through the reader comments at the bottom of almost any online article that touches on religious issues and you’ll be overwhelmed by a flood of contempt for churches, religious people and the very idea of God. And then there are the clergy abuse scandals, religious resistance to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) agenda and the apocalyptic threat of ISIS. Each of these factors makes calls for religious freedom increasingly difficult for the community to hear.
Faced by this barrage, the temptation is to raise the drawbridge and prepare for siege warfare. It’s the wrong response.
Accommodating religious freedom rights doesn’t impede society’s stability or progress—it enhances both.
Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has taken the much more constructive approach of dialogue and will host an inaugural roundtable gathering focusing on religious freedom issues next month. This is one of many conversations he’s engaging in as he struggles with the challenge of accommodating competing rights.
Submissions have been called for in the lead-up to the roundtable. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has contributed a six-page submission that sets out the “four interlocking freedoms” that comprise religious freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from state discrimination and freedom from unreasonable private discrimination.
“Australia has a robust history of finding a middle ground in which rights in the broadest sense are respected,” says the submission, authored by lawyer and Adventist religious liberty director James Standish. “Australia must resist the triumphalist formula employed in the US that has seen minor conflicts that could have easily been reasonably resolved, turn into nation-wide controversies.”
Mr Standish is referencing what’s often called the “clash of rights”: the unfortunate reality that each and every human right cannot be completely exercised without impacting on other rights. A classic example is the recent case of Kentucky (US) court clerk Kim Davis who was jailed for five days in connection with her refusal to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples. In this case it was clear that Ms Davis’s rights to act according to her Christian beliefs were considered by the State less important than the rights of same-sex couples to have their marriage documents processed. “In such cases,” Mr Standish says, “there is almost always a way to protect the religious rights of the individual while delivering the state’s service. This isn’t a novel challenge—we’ve faced it in everything from conscientious objectors in the military through to Sabbath keepers in a wide range of workplaces. Accommodating religious freedom rights doesn’t impede society’s stability or progress—it enhances both.”
The Adventist submission to the Commission highlights another clash that goes to the heart of how the Church connects with its community: faith-based hiring rights. Last year the Victorian state government began to push for religious schools to open up all employment positions to people of any or no religion unless there was an “inherent requirement” that the employee—a chaplain or religion teacher, for example—shares the employer’s religious identity. The Adventist Church sees it quite differently. “This misunderstands the role of employees in a faith-based organisation,” the Church’s submission states. “Each employee is expected to reflect and advance the values of the Church, and those values should touch on everything they do . . .”
Mr Standish dismantles suggestions that faith-based organisations shouldn’t be eligible for government funding if they operate according to distinct values. He also recommends stronger protections for free speech, “. . . even speech that makes us uncomfortable or represents small minority views. Law to protect free speech only works when it protects unpopular, marginalised voices that make the majority uncomfortable.”
It’s a principle that the upcoming roundtable would do well to be guided by. “Too many voices calling for a balance of human rights in Australia do not have freedom of religion and conscience even on their radar,” says Pastor Ken Vogel, from the Australian Union Conference. “This submission is ensuring that these core human rights are also heard and better understood.”
It’s doubtful consensus will be reached on every point, but if the gathering can achieve the delicate balance between respect and frankness, there’s every chance progress will be made.