Religious liberty: worth fighting for


Over the centuries Western democracies have evolved into pluralistic societies that embrace religious and intellectual freedom. However, in the West, driven in part by terrorism, there is a growing intolerance to pluralism, leading to the rise of identity politics. Identity politics fights exclusively for the interests of the group they represent—mainly on issues like gender identity, race and climate change. 

Unfortunately, the debate on these issues is often characterised by an ideological totalitarianism that threatens the hard-fought principles of freedom of conscience. 

With religious intolerance growing rapidly, it is not difficult to see how hatred can rise against God's people.

What happens when commonly held societal values collide with deeply ingrained Christian values like traditional marriage and the right for Adventist schools to preserve their special character? 

In the West, humanism seeks to create a just, fair and equal society for all—these days without God. Political correctness (PC) is the humanist’s tool used in many Western countries to create a compassionate, harmonious society based on its predetermined values. The language of PC gives comfort to many that we are indeed a fair and tolerant society by tip-toeing through the minefield of taboos, searching for the right phrase while trying not to offend. But in Australia, for example, when someone publically expresses a value contra to the widely held “norms”, there is a nasty streak of intolerance where belief-shaming laced with heavily freighted labels such as “bigot”, “intolerant” and “homophobe” are used to silence advocates. Do the very noble intentions of PC actually threaten liberty of conscience? 

Freedom of religion and speech are fundamental pillars of a fair and tolerant society that allow religion to be practised openly—as long as the law is not broken. Naturally religion has boundary markers that define similarities and differences to secular society. Recently in Tasmania, the Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous distributed literature on marriage equality to parents at Catholic schools and Martine Delaney, a transgender activist, lodged a complaint with the Anti-Discrimination Commission citing the “offensive” nature of the literature. Although the case was later dropped, the Archbishop rightly stated: “There are some in our society who would seek to silence the church on this issue.”1 The original purpose of the Anti-Discrimination Commission was to preserve the rights of minority groups against prejudice, but now it is being used by interest groups or identity politics to silence advocates of traditional marriage. The use of the law to mitigate discrimination is to use a blunt instrument that consequently seeks to create a “one size fits all”. In times past, adults would sort their differences out, but when the law is used in this way, individual rights will be trampled upon. With the ongoing Royal Commission and the decline of the moral authority of Christianity, the church has effectively been silenced. Consequently, identity politics has almost a free ride while the issue of freedom of conscience has been lost sight of in the debate. These issues have very important ramifications for our schools. For instance, in Australia, parents thought the Safe Schools program, pioneered in Victoria, was primarily about bullying—but this is far from reality. Roz Ward, a co-author of the program, openly stated that one of its aims was for children to role play as LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex) adults2 and, bizarrely, it was regarded as heterosexist for teachers to refer to students as “boys” or “girls”. Social re-engineering did not stop there, for students were free to dress in the uniform of the opposite sex and use their bathrooms. The Greens wanted any school—including church schools—prosecuted for discrimination if they failed to deliver the program.3 It is ironic those advocating “anti-bullying” programs use bullying tactics to shame and silence dissent. There should be nothing scandalous about our schools preserving their special character and ethos.

In various parts of the world, marriage equality has become a lightning rod for growing anti-Christian sentiment. Thirty years ago, societies happily embraced traditional marriage, which had been the building block of society for thousands of years. But remarkably, this has been completely turned upside down and advocates of traditional marriage are marginalised, humiliated and reviled: the Australian Christian Lobby is labelled as an “extreme fringe group”;4 Senator Cory Bernardi is regularly described as a “homophobe”; in California, Brendan Eich, former CEO and co-founder of Mozilla Firefox, was forced to step down for advocating traditional marriage;5 a cakeshop owner in Ireland was sued for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding;6 in America, militant atheists aggressively use anti-discrimination to censure religious viewpoints on sexuality.7  Our societies are becoming increasingly polarised and binary on these issues. Our world is indeed changing rapidly. 

In the early 1980s, when I was new to the Adventist faith, I wondered how religious intolerance would give birth to the death decree spoken of in Revelation 13:15: “. . . that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed”. I have observed that it does not make sense to many Adventists today and consequently many have lost confidence in our prophecies. Yet times have changed. 

The threat to freedom of religion is heating up around the world. Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and the Middle East are experiencing rising religious extremism. Russia, under the guise of anti-terrorism, forbids evangelism outside church walls.8  

Former British prime minister David Cameron, at a National Security Council meeting in 2015, unveiled a raft of measures to crack down on those holding “extremist views”. Cameron stated that Britain has been too “passively tolerant” and ominously added: “[we] should not leave people to live their lives as they please just because they obey the law”.9 American atheists aggressively campaign for all religion to be suppressed in schools and seek the removal of religious heritage from public spaces. Christian values and apocalyptic teachings are regarded by some, including the Australian Greens, as extremist.  

This might seem a long way from banning a religion—especially when the Constitution under section 116 guarantees the freedom of religion and association. However, during World War II, while Australia was in a state of emergency, the Jehovah’s Witnesses aggressively criticised big business, the Catholic Church and conscription giving rise to the perception they were disloyal. Consequently, in 1941 the Jehovah’s Witnesses were forcibly disbanded. Their property—kingdom halls, cars, even two boats—were all confiscated. 

In 1943 the High Court of Australia overturned the ban, but intriguingly made no reference to constitutional or religious freedom in its judgement. William Kaplan, a legal commentator, observed: “What the ban demonstrates is that, in wartime, basic rights whether written or not, like freedom of religion will take [second] place to the security of the state.”10

An innocuous plaque sits above the entrance to the Castelluzzo Caves in remote northern Italy, engraved with the words “liberty of conscience”. This plaque commemorates the Waldensian Christians who hid in those caves with their families during Easter in 1655 when 15,000 troops marched into the valleys with murderous intent. When the hundreds trapped in the cave were discovered, men, women and children were forced to march over the nearby precipice to their death. To stand in the caves, imagining what it was like to stand for your faith and hide with your children is indeed a confronting experience. Liberty of conscience—engraved with the blood of thousands of martyrs—is still a right worth fighting for. With religious intolerance growing rapidly globally, it is not difficult to see how hatred can rise against God’s people. 

We are told the final movements will be rapid ones and as Adventists, more than ever, we need to rediscover the prophecies in Revelation with Jesus and the gospel at the centre and not be afraid to stand up and share our faith. Also, we need to voice our concerns to our MPs about the rights of our schools to preserve their special character and our right to believe and practice traditional marriage—in the same way that political parties and identity groups value the right to hold to their viewpoints.

1. “Anti-discrimination complaint ‘an attempt to silence’ the Church over same-sex marriage, Hobart Archbishop says.”

2. Janet Albrechtsen. “Greens under Di Natale pose a danger to Australian freedoms.” Retrieved from

3. Anthony Fisher. “Federal election 2016: Greens make religious liberty an issue.” Retrieved from 

4. “Greens Senate candidate Christina Hobbs boycotts Australian Christian Lobby event,” June 21. Retrieved from 

5. Sarah McBride. “Mozilla CEO resigns, opposition to gay marriage drew fire.” Retrieved from 

6. “Northern Ireland bakers guilty of discrimination over gay marriage cake.” Retrieved from 

7. Family Research Council. “Hostility to Religion: The Growing Threat to Religious Liberty in the United States.” Retrieved from 

8. “Adventists Hold High-Level Moscow Talks About Law Restricting Missionary Work.” Retrieved from  

9. Jon Stone. “Britain is too tolerant and should interfere more in people’s lives, says David Cameron.” Retrieved from 

10. Jayne Persian. “A National Nuisance: The Banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia in 1941.” Retrieved from

Dr Mark Falconer is ministerial secretary for the Tasmanian Conference and pastor of Rosny and Margate churches.