The implosion of Nationals Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s political career, amid the growing scandal over his adulterous relationship with a female staffer comes at a fortuitous time. The Religious Freedom Review, an inquiry set up to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion, has just closed to submissions.
The impetus for the inquiry was the 2017 Marriage Equality Plebiscite, during which opponents of marriage equality argued they should be able to legally discriminate against people engaging in what they deemed morally repugnant behaviour, on the basis of their religious beliefs. And so it is with some irony that the exposure of Joyce’s morally questionable actions comes now.
The mandate for the Religious Freedom Review is to “consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights”. Clearly the aim of the inquiry is to placate those of faith who feel their religious beliefs are threatened by allowing LGBTI Australians the legal right to marry.
The context for the establishment of the inquiry has resulted in commentators generally analysing the intersection of the human right of freedom of religion with the human rights afforded (or which should be afforded) to LGBTI Australians. However, the inquiry provides the perfect opportunity to examine how granting greater religious freedom may look, when applied not to the LGBTI community, but to a “gregarious bull of a man often seen in a trademark Akubra bush hat”.
Joyce, a Christian and staunch defender of traditional marriage and family values, opposed marriage equality and abstained from the vote on legislation. Yet his behind-closed-doors activities, demonstrate an entirely different set of values to those he publicly proclaims.
Religions invariably impose strict moral rules on those practicing the faith, which impact not only on their public life, but also their personal life. For example, in Christianity, divorce, cohabitation and fornication are considered immoral, with children born out of wedlock pitied and frowned upon.
But of most relevance, the Christian Bible, in Leviticus 20:10, prohibits adultery, stating that “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbour—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”
Imagine therefore, what Joyce’s current situation would look like if the human right to freedom of religion took precedence over other human rights.
The generally accepted list of human rights is found within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948.
Fortunately for Joyce at this current time, he is protected from a vicious stoning for betraying his marriage vows. Article 3 of the UDHR says: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” He is also allowed to dissolve his marriage if he so wishes without unfavourable treatment (Article 16: “Men and women of full age….are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution”), and he has a right to privacy and protection from attacks on his reputation (Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”)
He is also generally protected from discrimination, whether it be in education (Article 26), employment (Article 23), participating in political life (Article 21) or other economic, social and cultural activities (Article 22).
The UDHR defines all human rights as equal, and all people as equally deserving of human rights. The UDHR provides a balance between competing rights, where rights may only be exercised to the extent that doing so does not cause harm to others in the community.
This is generally covered in Article 7: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” And, according to Article 29, “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”
In Australia, a secular, Western democracy, religious exemptions to anti-discrimination and other laws do already exist in some jurisdictions. But if, as a result of the current review, religious freedom is afforded a higher priority over other human rights, where would this leave Barnaby Joyce?
Will those who are morally outraged by Joyce’s adultery, cohabitation and fornication be demanding he be put to death?
Should Joyce be sacked from his job solely on the basis of his chosen (extramarital) partner?
If Joyce divorces his wife, could he be refused rent or accommodation, or a room in a hotel?
If Joyce chooses to remarry, could a civil celebrant refuse to officiate over his wedding ceremony on the basis of his moral depravity?
Will the nation debate whether Barnaby’s fifth child, born out of an immoral union, be worse off than his children born and raised in wedlock?
Fortunately for Joyce, the nation has not yet been summoned to vote on whether he is entitled to the right to privacy. Australians have not been invited to participate in a non-binding, non-compulsory postal survey to determine whether he should still be treated equally before the law as an adulterer. And fortunately for Joyce, he cannot be refused a room in a hotel to share with his pregnant partner, and he cannot be fired simply on the basis of his fornication.
Barnaby Joyce’s political career may be nearing its end, but he lives another day. Joyce has avoided a stoning for now, thanks to the intersection of the enjoyment of freedom of religion and other human rights in Australia. If he lived in a country where religious beliefs take precedence, he may well be dead.