By David Ayliffe
Shhhhh! There’s a thumping great Heffalump in Federal Parliament and he’s making quite a racket. The Heffalump has been around for quite some time ever since this blasted Marriage Equality debate began. Why can’t things just stay the same for ever and ever, Amen?
Damned Heffalump, just like Pooh and Piglet, courtesy of A.A. Milne, we’ve never been able to see him. It seems you can only dream about him, but believe me he’s there and he’s causing conservative politicians much angst as they lobby for increased protections for Freedom of Religion, as if they really are struggling now. They don’t want much, just to make sure people of faith, churches, temples, and synagogues have the right to tell same sex couples to ‘Heffalump off’ when it comes to marriage cakes, wedding gowns and suits and venues and so on.
Perhaps they moved on a little from bit from that, but the way some of their noses twitch from time to time I don’t think so.
The call for increasing protections for Freedom of Religion are wrongly placed. I agree with journalist Michael Bachelard who wrote in Fairfax Media that Religious Freedoms are and should be Limited. Further still, we need to examine what religions are and the freedoms given them. People should always be allowed to believe anything they wish, but in a common society they shouldn’t be able to behave just as they wish, especially in violation of law.
Attorney-General George Brandis wants to amend the bill to extend religious protections to civil celebrants. Perhaps the Heffalump has been overactive in his office and some civil celebrants may have requested it but as a Civil Celebrant I just don’t understand why. It’s not as if people are banging on my door to insist that I marry them. There are after all thousands of celebrants in Australia and I have to spend thousands of dollars a year to advertise my services just to get the marriages I do each year. Couples who I meet choose me to marry them because they like me or they think I can do a good job for them in the style of ceremony that they are seeking, or maybe they like the price I offer. I never have to refuse a couple – they refuse me. As for same sex couples if I was homophobic I think they would recognise that and then they certainly wouldn’t choose me. Celebrants are not authorised by the Attorney General to judge whether a couple should or shouldn’t marry and refuse them on that basis. They are authorised to enact a law and that is all. Why not give Celebrants the right to refuse marriage for people over 70, or maybe under 30? Why only same sex couples?
It’s ridiculous. Behind all of it is something quite nasty I think and it is the need that some in society have to insist we have the right to throw stones as perhaps we once did. They want us to be able to say “I can’t marry you because you are full of sin and going to Hell!” Well, not all people would want to say that but it is an example of an argument that some believe.
Then there are those who want to say we’ve always done things this way why should we change? Use that argument as an airline pilot in a storm and the result could be tragic.
When Australians gave Marriage Equality a resounding YES last week to recognise that same sex couples could marry there was a clear signal to parliament and to the rest of us that we are not nearly as conservative as a nation as we might have thought. I hated the idea of the Plebiscite in the first place and moreso when it morphed into a postal survey. It was always putting LGBTI people on show like old time circus freaks to be judged by the rest of us. My friends in that community confirm that the whole thing was really painful for many, raising the spectre of previous judgements where people have been excluded, mocked, abused and even killed because of their sexuality.
Now that it’s over, its impact should reach into every aspect of our lives. It doesn’t just answer the one question but in my view it is saying that the majority of Australians who took the trouble to go to the post office or post box and post their surveys (80% response!) have declared we don’t want to be known as a nation that discriminates on any basis. We want to be an inclusive society, welcoming others. I wonder what that might say about refugee policy?
Perhaps I’m drawing a broad brush here but this would never have happened in the world into which I was born in the early 1950s. It certainly is an exciting time to be alive in Australia. That is you don’t fear the Heffalump, but then as Pooh says: “Never fear the shadows, it’s just means there’s a light shining nearby.”
There is in my view an urgent need for Parliament to consider not “Freedom of Religion”, as some propose, but the well overdue examination of legislation to protect society from the excesses of religion. At the same time we need to examine just who claims to be a religion and revise the criteria by which that classification is accepted.
No religious group, for example, should be allowed to operate outside of the law that governs the rest of the country. When transparency is required for all kinds of not for profit organisations so too the financial statements of religions should be clearly available to Government, their followers and other interested parties.
The latter is the case with major denominations who publish financial statements but it is not the case with some other religious groups. Freedom of Religion should not give any religious group the right to hide from its supporters and donors how much money is raised and where it goes. I think an audit of this would be very interesting indeed. Now when those groups that claim to be religions get de jure tax-free status for their businesses, at a large financial cost to the population, the need for public accountability increases significantly, after all if they gain a public benefit from the public purse the public has every right to know where, how and why.
After all, have we learnt nothing from the Royal Commission into Child Abuse? Remember Freedom of Religion is one of the grounds that motivated organisations to protect offenders within their ranks and made them feel they had licence to do so..
In the Catholic Church, Freedom of Religion allowed predator priests and others to be shielded by church beliefs that gave sanctity to the confessional and the priesthood and that enabled Bishops and Cardinals to go to any lengths to hide offences and offenders. This because an essential element of faith in an unseen but all powerful God is that allegiance to that God as determined by the church, synagogue or temple puts the believer apart from and above the law. Not everyone of course follows this to the letter, but there are some clear examples.
In August this year, Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart declared he was prepared to go to jail for failing to report sexual abuse if revealed in the confessional. That argument should no longer be countenanced by any modern society. Let him go to jail and stay there, but better, let the Church recognise its responsibility to show mercy through justice and the law to it’s most vulnerable. I suspect the Archbishop is out of touch with the majority of Catholics who would find it unforgiveable should their Parish Priest keep secret a confession of abuse involving their own child. Many no longer attend Mass because of this very reason. Has the Archbishop and the church forgotten this or don’t they care?
We don’t have to ask victims of sexual abuse questions about Freedom of Religion and the Sanctity of the Confessional. We also don’t have to ask aborigines in Australia how it felt to be the first peoples of the land living at a time of the discriminating “White Australia Policy” – no vote, no recognition, no rights. We are moving on, if slowly. Discrimination may be valuable to those who use it as a weapon of offence on religious grounds, but it continues to say to it’s victims – you are not like us, you are not the same, you are not equal.
As the Human Rights Commission discovered this is not just a Catholic issue. Secrecy abounds in many churches, various faiths and extremist groups. It is how some manage their business.
So I ask what right has any of us to demand greater powers of discrimination to exclude any group within our society from services or products that others can buy or receive? Talk about a slippery slope!
Perhaps arguments about cake makers are disappearing but let’s not forget that allowing this discrimination would open doors to many others. Should a Christian cake maker have the right to decide against serving a gay couple for their wedding? Yes, but only if our discrimination is broad enough to be really effective. Why limit it to religious groups for Heaven’s sake? Let’s allow restaurants to stop serving gay people, and taxis and Uber drivers to refuse to transport what they deem to be same sex couples. Let’s get back to a world where signs like “Blacks not welcome here” or “Japs prohibited” or “No poofs here” are welcomed.
The Postal Survey clearly stated that a strong majority in Australia doesn’t want such discrimination. Changing Marriage to include same sex couples is a big step in this country and all politicians should be considering its implications for other policies they support.
Further, Freedom of Religion, whilst important in it’s basic form, prompts all kinds of troubled questions for me. I am a former member of a religious cult. I am also a current member of an organisation that seeks to inform and assist people separated from loved ones through extremist religious groups, Cult Information and Family Support.There are many “churches” in Australia so deemed primarily because they claim to be, that could well do with some careful revision. At the same time the definition of religious groups and churches should be examined. In the early 1970’s the group I was part of, Zion Full Salvation Ministry, sought a Religious Marriage Celebrant licence for the woman who became the cult leader. What was required at the time was a letter to the Attorney General’s Office requesting a licence and declaring the group a church. That was all.
I’m not sure that it has changed much since then. I hope it has. In any case, the big question to consider is whether religious organisations are required to meet the standards expected of citizens, including our commitment to law and order and human rights?
Consider the Exclusive Brethren that claims to be a church, and no doubt it is under current guidelines. The church continues to receive very large financial support from the Government for its schools – set up to comply with the law of educating children, yet to segregate children from the evil world in which the rest of us low-lifes live. Those children educated to High School level will however be prevented from going on to tertiary studies. None can aspire to be doctors, lawyers or even teachers because of the religious beliefs accepted by their parents and proclaimed by their leaders, particularly their leader the current “Man of God” Bruce Hales.
Denying access to education is against the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, of which Australia is signatory. Clause 28 of the Declaration specifically obligates states to make higher education accessible to all and education and vocation information and guidance available and accessible to all. Currently, I expect that Freedom of Religion provisions would be used by Brethren to exclude them from any need to comply with this.
Certainly there would have been fervent prayer during the time of the postal survey within Exclusive Brethren households. Being homosexual is the worst of possible sins within the faith. In 2012 the last remaining doctor in the group, educated before tertiary education was banned, was struck off for prescribing hormone therapy (chemical castration) to a young member of the Church to help him become ex-gay. I’m glad to acknowledge their intended victim Craig Hoyle, New Zealand journalist as a friend and so glad that this dreadful plan was foiled through media exposure. By the way, the Brethren claimed that they were not anti-gay, Michael Bachelard denies this and he would know, they love to take him to court.
Freedom of Religion is the claim that all beliefs use to validate activities and beliefs that put them at odds with the rest of society.
With the Brethren, just like other totalitarian faith groups, former members are shunned if they leave and considered “dead” to their families and friends. It is particularly hard on young people who decide to choose a life of freedom as the grief of separation never leaves them. In many cases ex members talk of never being told of illnesses and death of close family members. I have known of some who have been able to see parents, siblings or children within the group for only a very short few awkward hours. So much for family love.
To understand the Exclusive Brethren better I strongly recommend journalist Michael Bachelard’s book “Behind the Exclusive Brethren.’ In many ways a living horror story.
Yet the Brethren are not alone. There are many groups as you will see from the CIFS website that restrict individual freedoms of their followers, sometimes in violation of law either in spirit or act. All of these groups will claim they are the only ones with the right truth and the right path and that every other one is wrong.
At a time when some call for stronger Freedom of Religion provisions to allow discrimination, it is time that the Federal Government seriously examine excesses within religious bodies that fly under the radar because they claim to have God on their side and live above the law.
Many high demand religious groups use Freedom of Religion to excuse all kinds of behaviours including vows of secrecy that prevent disclosure of child and domestic abuse to authorities, and misappropriation of donated funds.
We need Freedom of Religion, but we also need a better understanding of what we define as a religion in our society and how then how we expect that religion to behave and treat its followers if it is to gain financial and other benefits within society.
 Article 28
- States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:
(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all; (b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need; (c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means; (d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;