OPINION | Freedom of religion report a confused mess


Crispin Hull


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WHAT a fizzer. After sitting on the Ruddock report on religious freedom for six months the best the Government can come up with is to refer all five of the contentious matters to the Australian Law Reform Commission and agree to the other 15 totally innocuous ones.

One might well ask, why did the government bother? We know the answer. Not because there is any real threat to religious freedom in Australia, but because a few aggrieved conservative Coalition MPs, egged on by the News Corp - Sky News echo chamber detested the prospect of marriage equality and wanted to return to the days of discrimination against LGBTI people.

The Ruddock report and the Government’s reaction to it has opened a can of worms and opened Pandora’s Box, and all sorts of nasties have come out. The report’s recommendations (No 5 and 7) included permitting religious schools to discriminate against students, staff and contractors on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status, (provided the discrimination is founded on precepts of the religion and has been publicised).

The Government flicked that one to the Australian Law Reform Commission.

So we have not moved very far, except to implicitly accept that this discrimination can continue until the commission deals with it.

But some good may come of all this. The worms and contents of Pandora’s Box are so bad that they will cause a reaction. Indeed they have already done so.

As this column suggested some weeks ago when some of the recommendations were leaked, this report could easily back-fire on the conservative promoters of precept that people could discriminate under the banner of religion in a way that would otherwise be unlawful.

Australia’s top legal professional body, the Law Council of Australia, came out very shortly after the release of the report saying that while it welcomed steps to enshrine religious protections, “the delicate balance between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination would be better dealt with in comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislation”.

I would go further and argue for a fully fledged constitutional Bill of Rights.

On the other hand, the Government dodged any ire from the conservatives by even referring the tiny bit contentious Recommendations 6 and 8 to the Law Reform Commission.

Those recommendations say all “jurisdictions should abolish any exception to anti-discrimination law for religious schools against students, staff and contractors on the basis of race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status. Further, jurisdictions should ensure that any exceptions for religious schools do not permit discrimination against an existing employee solely on the basis that the employee has entered into a marriage.”

To most people that would be obvious, but not to the Morrison Government, with Sky News, Abbott, Abetz, and News Corp flaring their nostrils at the possibility that same-sex spouses might have equal rights.

The glaring inconsistency of the Ruddock report is laid bare when you compare its Recommendations 5 and 7 (which would PERMIT discrimination against staff, students and contractors on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status), on one hand, and Recommendation 6 and 8 (which would PROHIBIT discrimination on the ground of race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status).

Why prohibit discrimination on one set of grounds but not the other? Because the other is all about sex. The churches and the conservatives are hung-up about sex.

The whole Ruddock report and the Government’s response to it is too silly and childish to be taken seriously, much as I have the utmost respect for some of the panel members.

Yes, there are serious human-rights questions in Australia, but they are more to do with abuse BY the religious not AGAINST them, and more to do with things totally outside the religious sphere. These include things like speech, privacy, unjustified incarceration, race, violence against women, violence by police, and to a lesser extent freedom of association and assembly.

Freedom of speech is a major issue, especially the way defamation laws are repressing the venting of significant matters of public interest.

Indeed, Recommendation 3 recognises the importance of other rights, besides religion.

It says, “Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should consider the use of objects, purposes or other interpretive clauses in anti-discrimination legislation to reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights, including freedom of religion.”

Logically, however, freedom of religion is the least important and most concocted freedom in the human-rights handbook. This is because once you have a strong defence of freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech, a separate head of freedom of religion is unnecessary. With those freedoms protected, people could belong to whatever church they liked, congregate wherever they wanted and could spout whatever doctrine or nonsense they wanted to whomever wished to listen, provided they did not harm others.

But looking at it that way might give succour to those pesky unions (freedom of association) and those pesky demonstrators (freedom of assembly) and that would never sit well with News Corp and Abbott et al.

The Coalition is not really interested in human rights outside a perverted view that human rights include a right to spout hate speech and to discriminate against gays. The Ruddock review was never about rights, but about former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull placating the right wing of his party.

Any serious inquiry into strengthening human rights in Australia would look at all rights and how to enshrine them in the Constitution so they could be upheld by the independent courts against ever-encroaching federal, state and territory legislatures and executives.

READ MORE: www.crispinhull.com.au

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