Defending Religious Freedom
With the leaking of selected parts of the report of the Religious Freedom Review chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, religious freedom is back in the news.
During my first four years in the Victorian Parliament there were three attacks on religious freedom in Victoria – by the Andrews Labor Government; by the Greens; and by Fiona Patten.
The first and most serious attack was Labor’s Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016.
As I explained in my second reading speech this Labor Bill sought “to impose on religious bodies, including religious schools and churches, the onus of proving that it is an inherent requirement of a particular job for the employee to share the religious belief of that religious body or school. Furthermore, the state” was “proposing itself as the adjudicator as to whether or not these inherent requirements are met.” In essence the Bill was “ignoring the rights of parents to engage a school which shares their values”.
There are several aspects to religious freedom. Of course at its heart is the right to believe and to worship. However, from this core the right to freedom of religion engages with the broader rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association, as well as the right of parents to “to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” (ICCPR Article 18.4)
The existence of religious schools is a manifestation of these freedoms in action.
Labor’s Bill was a direct attack on the rights of parents because it would have made it impossible to operate a school where the whole school community, including all the staff, whatever their particular role, shares the same set of religious beliefs and upholds the same set of ethical values. This would deprive parents seeking to exercise their rights “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” of the ability to do so in a free association with other parents and education providers.
Just who do Daniel Andrews and his Labor colleagues think they are?
The Labor Bill proposed making bureaucrats and judges the ultimate arbiter of whether a religious school was justified in requiring the gardener, the canteen manager and the maths teacher to uphold the religious beliefs and values of the school and of the parents who chose that school for the education of their children.
Thankfully I was able to cast the deciding vote which resulted in the defeat of this Bill by just one vote.
The second attack on religious freedom was by the Greens in the form of the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Equality for Students) Bill 2016. This bill addressed one of the issues being discussed in the media right now – whether religious schools should continue to have the freedom to decline to admit a student, or otherwise deal with a student, based on the student’s “sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity”.
In my speech on the Greens Bill I pointed out that “Faith-based schools display the utmost respect for students with alternative viewpoints and for students who may practise alternative lifestyles, including sexual practices, not condoned by the school's ethos.
The reality is that students are simply not being expelled or refused entry on the basis of their sexuality. This shows that schools are already treating students with sensitivity, understanding and respect.”
However, I also stated that the Greens Bill “fails to recognise and fails to respect that we live in a community, a democracy in fact, which is multifaith and pluralistic with multiple views concerning sexual identity, orientation and conduct, for example. This is a clear attempt by the Greens to force a single view of contested ideology onto Victorians, especially those who choose to send their children to schools not run by the state. If passed, this will violate the values and the conscience of parents and students throughout the state, and if passed, this will certainly undermine the private school sector”.
The third attack on freedom of religion was an attempt by Fiona Patten to remove the “advancement of religion” from the definition of charity in Victorian law. This attempt showed a complete disregard for the irreplaceable contribution made by people of faith to the Victorian community and the intrinsic connection for many charitable service providers between their religion and their service to the community.
In my speech on Ms Patten’s motion I said “I rise this afternoon to speak vehemently against this motion, which is a misconceived and frankly bigoted attack on the irreplaceable contribution that Christian, Jewish and other religious bodies make to the welfare of the people of Victoria. It needs to be understood that the motivation for religious bodies to be engaged in the material side of charity — health care, shelter for the homeless and so forth — is profoundly rooted in specific religious beliefs. Christians like me, for example, take inspiration from scripture such as Matthew 25:35–36, in which at the Last Judgement Christ said:
… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Indeed as Christianity spread throughout the world it brought to an end widespread practices such as infanticide. It was Christians who led the movement for the abolition of slavery and in India for the abolition of sati, or the sacrifice of widows. Christians did so precisely because their religious beliefs taught them to see every single human being, without exception, as inherently valuable.”
I hope to be in a position after 24 November 2018 as the Independent Member for Werribee to continue to defend freedom of religion for all Victorians.