In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
‘Protecting Diversity’, a document endorsed by a range of denominations and church groups, proposes “positive solutions to live all together well in a multicultural society”.
The Australian federal government has set up an expert Panel on religious freedom, led by the MP Phillip Ruddock.
The panel mainly aims “to consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights”.
In order to achieve it, the Australian government called for submissions on the topic, and it has received over 16,000, which will be published online by March 31.
Additionally, the Panel is conducting face-to-face consultations with a wide range of stakeholders with different viewpoints on the topic of religious freedom.
Among those who send submissions, there is the Australian Christian legal think tank Freedom for Faith (FFF), which has submitted a 100 page document called 'Protecting Diversity', written by Patrick Parkinson, a Sydney University law professor.
It has been endorsed by a range of denominations and church groups including the Australian Christian Churches (which includes Hillsong), the Baptists, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, Free Reformed Churches of Australia, Church Communities Australia and the Sydney Chinese Christian Churches Association.
“IT IS NOT A RE-RUN OF THE DEBATES AROUND MARRIAGE”
According to FFF, “it sets out the way to a better legal framework for religious freedom in Australia. It is not a re-run of the plebiscite debates around marriage”.
“We do not want this Review to be perceived through the lens that it involves a battle between LGBT groups and the Churches, as if protection of the rights of one group must inevitably be at the expense of another”, it adds.
“POSITIVE SOLUTIONS TO LIVE TOGETHER WELL”
The Australian Christian think tank points out that “one of the principles that we spell out explicitly is that we do not propose any winding back of LGBT rights”.
“Rather, we propose positive solutions, for how we can all live together well in a multicultural society in which there are a great many people of faith from a range of religions, as well as many who have no faith”.
“THERE IS ALMOST NOT LEGAL PROTECTION FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM”
The document claims that there “is almost no legal protection for freedom of religion in Australia”.
That is why FFF proposes a major reform, a Religious Freedom Act, which would “establish religious freedom as a right rather than a grudging concession”.
It recommends “reforms concerning the way in which anti-discrimination laws are drafted, moving away from the language of exemptions and exceptions, to avoid any perception of special pleading or special concessions to people of faith”.
At the same time, this new Act would also provide clear limitations to religious freedom, including for public safety (preventing terrorism, for example) and the protection of children.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM COMMISSIONER
Another key point of the document is the appointment of a National Religious Freedom Commissioner, who will “bring the voices of neglected minorities into the national conversation on diversity […] to ensure an ongoing focus on religious freedom issues”.
The Commissioner would sit alongside the other members of the Australian Human Rights Commission, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner.
SCHOOLS STAFF SELECTION
The Christian group has taken a strong line on employment, and says that religious schools, charities and other organisations should be free to select staff “who adhere to the beliefs, tenets and doctrines of the religion concerned”.
“The freedom to select is an existential issue for faith communities of all kinds. If a Christian school cannot advertise for staff who hold Christian beliefs, then within a fairly short period, the staff profile will be indistinguishable from the state school next door”, the document states.
They also ask “to give reasonable accommodation for faith in the workplace and to ensure that Christian parents have the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious and moral convictions”.
This has been one of the most controversial points of the FFF document.
The Equality Campaign, the group that led the national movement in favor of gay marriage last December, has said that “religious exemptions allowing discrimination in employment, education and delivery of goods and services should be repealed”.
“The exemptions go too far, and act as a barrier to vulnerable people accessing the support services they need”, they pointed out.