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Religious freedom laws have no place in modern Australia

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

In an era where religious importance is on the decline, it's only conservatives and the hard Right who are still pushing for religious discrimination, writes Dr Stuart Edser.

AFTER THE MARRIAGE EQUALITY debate of 2017, where Malcolm Turnbull put the LGBTQ community and Australia through that odious postal survey, the religionists in the Coalition and their religious-right allies, whose arguments were ignored by the bulk of Australia, put up religious discrimination as a matter sorely needing urgent federal attention. An enfeebled Malcolm Turnbull set up an inquiry.

They wanted two things. Firstly, to protect religion from discrimination, alongside the existing protected categories of age, race, disability, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. On the face of it, that request/demand appears to be congruent with the Australian value of the “fair go”. Nobody’s going to bat much of an eyelid at that. But scratch a little deeper and you see there’s something more sinister going on. The second of the demands was that they are given the legal right themselves to discriminate against others.

Who are these people? Well, it’s not hard to guess. They’re not everyday people of faith, your average believer or church-goer. No, I’m talking about fundamentalist (read: strict, orthodox, exclusivist) advocates who are pressing a willing government for so-called religious freedom legislation. It’s the usual suspects: the Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Sydney, Lyle Shelton, Fred Nile, Martyn Iles and, bizarrely, Mark Latham. And of course, hard-right politicians smarting after their marriage loss.

After declaring the primacy of democracy in the marriage debate, opposing a vote in the Parliament and talking up support for the whole nation to have a say about people’s private lives and thus opening the LGBTQ community up to state-sanctioned overt homophobia, some of these conservative politicians voted against their constituent’s wishes. Some of them left the chamber and just refused to vote altogether. Democracy, indeed.

The positive right of discrimination, of course, focused on two categories, historic and with precedent: the rights of women to decide what happens to their own bodies and the obstruction of LGBTQ people to live freely and without fear, especially school students and school teachers. In other words, women and gays. Yet again.

Now it’s important to get some perspective here as to how many Australians are on board with religious freedom laws that would openly allow discrimination against women and LGBTQ people. The latest research, from a number of sources, would suggest, it’s “not many”. Brand new data from the Rationalist Society of Australia, which investigated questions about religion in the Australian National University’s Australian election study, surveys of social studies and values study, reveals that a full 71% of Australians stated that religion is ‘not personally important’ to them. It found that 62% of Australians don’t belong to a religious organisation.

And recently, the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey found 41% of Australians don’t trust religious leaders ‘at all’ and in the 18-24 years bracket, that rises to a huge 47%. The Rationalist Society’s research found that between 74% and 82% of us oppose religious schools having the right to expel students and sack teachers on the grounds of sexual orientation and relationship status. Yet, if you believed those pushing religious freedom legislation, you’d think the nation was clamouring to break down the doors of Parliament entreating the politicians to enact such laws on behalf of all of us.

The purpose here is to focus on the clear discrepancy between advocates of these laws and the rest of us. It looks as though they want something very different from the values that most everyday Australians espouse: the fair go, a willingness to help out someone in need and to live and let live, understanding that we’re all not cookie-cutter clones of each other. And though many of us might not frame it this way, we really like the separation of Church and State.

We’ve never actually been a particularly religious nation. We’re not like America and we don’t generally go in for ostentatious signs of religion. There are many theories as to why this is, but we’ve had pretty low trust in the Church and its offices historically. It looks like the conservative politicians and religionists pushing this religious freedom barrow really do want a kind of “soft theocracy” where they imbue Australian culture with their laws, their rules, their mores and sanctions — in fact, their whole worldview.

If they ever ran the show, we could say goodbye to climate action (cultural Marxist rubbish), as God will not allow climate catastrophe, says Martyn Iles, Australian Christian Lobby supremo.

At a recent conference, Iles said:

“All of a sudden, I’m actually seeing people rising up more and more and more. Give this a couple of years and we’ll be able to put such a shockwave through any Parliament in the country they won’t even know what hit them.”

Many self-described Christians distance themselves from these types of beliefs. During the marriage equality debate, a majority of Christians ignored the ACL and the archbishops and voted “yes”. Similarly, on the question of assisted dying for the terminally ill, most Christians, like most Australians, support it. And it seems that most everyday Christians have moved on from “repent or burn” theology.

The religious Right wants to enshrine a fundamentalist worldview on the rest of Australia. They’ll start with women and LGBTQ people. But women should be left to decide for themselves the processes of their own bodies. It’s their call. And gay or transgender young people should not be expelled from schools because of some twisted belief about Christian ethos.

If your religion calls for you to outcast the LGBTQ youth, then maybe it’s time to find a kinder religion. If it calls for you to sack a gay teacher, then re-read the Good Samaritan and maybe take your own Lord’s teaching on the primacy of love more seriously.

Most everyday Christians will probably tell you that they feel free and safe to practise their own faith in Australia right now and that they do not need laws enshrining discrimination and bigotry to treat others badly. I’m with them.

Dr Stuart Edser is a Newcastle-based Counselling Psychologist in private practice.

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