In a matter of weeks, the long-awaited recommendations from the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review will be publicly released.
The government has already seen the final report and is working on its response as we speak.
When finally released, it will be amidst plenty of fanfare and promises of peace in our time.
If the church simply accepts the government’s spin, we may end up with much less freedom than we had last year.
Since then, there has been a major change to the law which affects us all.
The law on marriage used to tell us not only what marriage is, but that gender is ordered a particular way, sexuality is directed towards a particular end, and family is structured around both gender and biology. It was a heteronormative foundation for society. It taught us a great deal about human relationships.
The law on marriage now tells us something quite different about all of these things. Gender does not matter, sexuality is fluid and open-ended, family is whatever we say it is.
But it’s more serious than that.
The great English common lawyer Sir William Blackstone wrote that, in an English legal system such as ours, laws are “rules of right conduct.”
Note that – they are rules. Not mere suggestions. Not symbolic. Not flexible. They are rules… And they are rules concerning what is right and what is wrong.
It is accurate, therefore, for me to say that the law on marriage now tells us that gender must not matter. Sexuality must be fluid and open ended. Family must be a flexible idea.
As Christians, we have a collection of convictions about marriage, creation and the human person which are contrary to the new rules.
We have a collection of beliefs that are, strictly speaking, against the law.
That is why advocates against change raised the issue of freedom so strongly in the marriage debate.
We now find ourselves in a position where we need a special law that gives us permission to hold and express our beliefs without fear of punishment. The only alternative is that they remain against the law.
The “no” campaign successfully forced the government to acknowledge the problem, which lead ultimately to the present Ruddock Religious Freedom Review.
ACL believes that an adequate government response will permit people of faith to continue to do what they have always done. It will restore the freedoms that we enjoyed last year.
These include the freedom to proclaim the truth about marriage, sexuality, gender and family in church and in our communities. It must also include the right to speak about such things to anyone at all, in any environment, whether at work, university, other institutions, or in private.
It goes without saying that the right to resist saying things which are against conscience (such as pro-same-sex-marriage messages) must also be protected.
It is essential the Report include adequate free speech protections.
The Report should also prevent people of faith from facing any kind of discrimination for their convictions about marriage, gender, sexuality and family. This should include discrimination in employment, professional accreditation of any kind, work as a contractor, admission to any institution, the holding of any office, status as foster parents or any other such thing.
Additionally, nobody should be threatened with any kind of detriment or face any disciplinary process because of their beliefs in relation to marriage, gender, sexuality and family.
The Report should include robust non-discrimination protections.
Freedoms must also be protected in a collective way, to ensure freedom of religion and association remain as they were before the law changed. Corporations, charities and other bodies with a religious ethos must be able to continue to operate without fear.
Religious institutions, including schools, educational bodies, churches, charities, and manifold others should be able to select staff who share and model their beliefs around marriage, gender, sexuality and family. Government funding of any type must not be withheld on account of their beliefs and neither should their charitable status be threatened. In addition, no entity should lose any government contract or be excluded from any government service because of such beliefs.
Any entity should be able to establish itself according to certain doctrines and beliefs and conduct all of its internal operations and external dealings in accordance with them.
The Report should include a range of protections for freedom of religion at an associational level.
Associational freedom should also extend to faith-based businesses and other entities engaged in the provision of goods, services and venues. Nobody should be compelled to provide such services in a way that their conscience forbids.
The Report should specifically recommend freedom of conscience for providers of goods, services and venues.
International human rights law affirms the right of parents to ensure that their children are raised in a manner consistent with their moral and religious convictions. Parents with dissenting beliefs concerning marriage, gender, sexuality and family should face no challenge to their suitability as parents (whether biological, adoptive, or foster parents), nor should they be forced to have their children educated in a manner that conflicts with their beliefs.
The Report should recommend the protection of parental rights.
All this is said before considering the impact of a person’s beliefs on various “fit and proper person” tests which are applied in certain professions, or for certain qualifications. Or what of the impact of such beliefs on workplace health and safety? A consistent theme in workplace and university cases is that dissenting beliefs on marriage, gender, sexuality and family create “unsafe” spaces.
Additionally, little has been said concerning staff in organisations like schools, big corporations (think QANTAS), and government departments who resist internal pressure to teach certain programs, support certain causes or promote certain messages. What of their job security?
An adequate government response will address all these issues and more.
None of them are hypothetical – all are drawn from real-world examples either in Australia or overseas, which I will write about in future blogs.
The need for genuine religious freedom protections is not imaginary.
Without them, we will be less free than we were last year. When it comes to the areas of marriage, gender, sexuality and family, Christian people and the church at large will be unable to do what they have always done without fear.
ACL is advocating for a response that permits us all to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim 2:2).
In the meantime, don’t be convinced too easily when the report is released. And be ready to campaign with us for more.