Religious freedom should be protected

Fr Brian Lucas, photo by Beth Doherty

This article was published in the Canberra Times on 24 January, 2013

By Fr Brian Lucas

Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. Its existence and importance is acknowledged in the constitution and in international covenants to which Australia is a signatory. It is a freedom that cannot be ignored but it is a freedom questioned by many who want churches to abandon their beliefs in the public square.

Governments are obliged to ensure that freedom of religion and the freedom to manifest religious beliefs in public are recognised and protected in law. It applies equally to participation in religious observance and to the delivery of services by religious people and agencies, for both religious organisations and their members. Many people who have a religious belief exercise their religious freedom to promote the common good.

On Thursday a Senate committee will hold hearings on a draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill that includes protections for religious freedom.

There are more than 1300 Catholic parishes in Australia, where more than 600,000 parishioners worship every Sunday and work with their fellow parishioners to provide services to the local community.

The St Vincent de Paul Society, for example, works through parishes and has 40,000 members and volunteers helping people in need across Australia.

In the schools sector, there are more than 700,000 students being taught at more than 1700 Catholic schools by more than 55,000 teachers. In healthcare, Catholic agencies provide more than 9000 hospital beds and more than 19,000 residential aged care beds.

Catholic social services are the largest welfare provider outside of government, with more than 60 member organisations employing more than 10,000 staff and 4000 volunteers providing a huge range of services.

The value of the work carried out by Catholic people and agencies is not just in the numbers of people helped, but that they are helped in the spirit of Christian love.

The draft laws propose religious freedom be exercised as exceptions to the anti-discrimination laws. Drafting legislation that way fails to recognise that religious freedom is not a special permission to discriminate granted by government but a fundamental human right that government is obliged to protect.

To make this clear and to remove the potential for misunderstanding, the legislation should replace that language with words that recognise religious freedom as one of a number of important competing rights that must be balanced against each other.

As human beings endowed with religious freedom, people have the right to contribute to society and serve humanity in accordance with those beliefs.

We need a system that encourages all Australians to participate in the public life of the nation, not one that would reject some because they have a religious belief.

Parents choose Catholic schools for their children because they expect this education will be provided by teachers in a manner consistent with the doctrines, beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. If a teacher in a church school publicly argues against church teachings or lives in such a way to challenge those teachings, the school should have the freedom to refuse to employ that person.

The bill also deals with freedom of speech and a number of commentators have criticised those sections that relate to offending people. This idea that one person can be responsible for how another person reacts is fundamentally flawed.

The law prohibits certain behaviour in the interests of good order in society, and rightly so. It can only require people to do or refrain from actions for which they are responsible. That is why we sometimes excuse people if for some reason, such as mental illness, they cannot be held responsible. No one can be responsible for how another person reacts and whether they may be offended by something said or done. The test must be an objective one.

A better approach is to ask whether this action or these words are such that a reasonable person would say they are calculated to incite hatred or violence against another.

The Catholic Church does not impose its beliefs on anyone and no one is obliged to work for a church agency. The expectation that those working in a Catholic agency will support its mission applies to everyone without discrimination.

The Reverend Brian Lucas is the general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. He will be giving evidence on Thursday to the Senate committee hearing on the Exposure Draft of Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012.

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