The PM is holding 20 Ruddock Review recommendations to advance religious
freedom while giving Christian lobbyists private briefings ahead of their public release in June.
Malcolm Turnbull faces a political gamble by swinging the religious pendulum too far to the right. Does he risk a backlash by further weakening our secular constitution — giving ‘faith’ extraordinary new powers — simply to ease religious angst over the legalisation of same-sex marriage?
Conservative MPs won’t let it go; and “religious freedom” is their battle cry. Assistant Home Affairs Minister, Alex Hawke, is already on record as saying that Australia is “absolutely” in a “new cultural war” against secular social policy.
There’s an almost postmodernist feel about this Christian campaign for more “freedom”. It’s an “identity politics” strategy of presenting Christianity as an “oppressed minority”, despite their 52 per cent showing at the 2016 Census.
There were 16,500 submissions to the Ruddock Review — almost 10 times the number to the Banking Royal Commission. It is estimated that 95 per cent of these are from aggrieved congregations filling out pro-forma letters against gay marriage, orchestrated by religious lobbies.
Media commentators are not asking the basic questions. What, precisely, do the Churches mean by “freedom” — and what freedoms are they currently denied? Legal experts say “none!” The handful of ‘secular’ organisations that lodged Ruddock submissions went to great lengths listing dozens of freedoms, privileges and entitlements, already enjoyed exclusively by all religious institutions.
They include the existing right to ‘hire and fire’ LGBTI staff and students from their schools. But it extends to “religious belief” under exemptions from some anti-discrimination laws — and this can include thousands of “secular” positions in church hospitals, schools, aged cared, charities and for-profit businesses. They include teachers, nurses and welfare workers who may fall foul of religious exemptions. A recent poll showed 80 percent of the public thought this was unacceptable.
We must be careful not to give additional powers to corporatised religious institutions. Every person currently has the constitutional right to believe whatever they wish — but religions should not be above state and national laws that apply to all other citizens. The trials of Cardinal Pell and Arch Bishop Philip Wilson attest to that.
Australia is already regarded as a ‘soft theocracy’, with considerable religious influence in politics. A recent academic journal showed that our federal parliament is one of the most Christianised in the Western world, with 30 per cent of MPs “actively” attending regular parliamentary Prayer Breakfasts — a rate which is twice the religiosity of the general public.
And religious groups are now lobbying MPs for greater powers.
The religious publication ‘Eternity’ reports Freedom For Faith (FFF) being given privileged briefings on the Ruddock Review by the Prime Minister’s Officer. At the recent FFF conference in Sydney, Professor Patrick Parkinson — who wrote the Ruddock Review submission for Freedom For Faith — told the audience:
“I have been kept closely in touch with the Ruddock Inquiry. I have been kept informed by the Prime Minister’s office and we have been making progress.”
This lends credibility to the claim that Christian churches wish to codify and extend many of their religious entitlements — specifically articulated in many submissions from leading religious institutions, and published on the Ruddock Review website.
Professor Parkinson went on to say that ‘secularists’ fail to understand the need for religious schools to have all staff bound by FFF principles, and including Christian maths teachers.
“My wife is a maths teacher and she brings God into her classroom all the time, saying that an equation relates to the order of creation.”
In Australia’s secular democracy religious organisations cannot claim they are discriminated against. Currently, 40 per cent of secondary students are taught in private religious schools. Promoting God — including within STEM subjects — seems to be accepted practice. Extend these freedoms to the variety of other religious businesses — all funded to some degree by taxpayers — and it’s difficult not to conclude that the federal government and religion are perhaps too closely joined at the hip.
It seems almost certain that 78 per cent of the public who believe religion and politics should be separated (IPSOS Poll 2016), would also support the separation of religion from STEM subjects in schools. Does this contribute to the perennial conflict between religion and science?
We have yet to learn the content and effect of Philip Ruddock’s 20 recommendations for religious freedom — and the lobbyists are already working on sympathetic MPs in the corridors of power. But the PM must finally take the gamble of formalising one or more of the recommendations into law. That may be more problematic, once it hits the floor of parliament.
At that point, many MPs might think more seriously about a public backlash if religion — already heavily bankrolled by taxpayers — is given new powers. To codify the hiring and firing of their vast workforce — based on a belief in God — might be swinging the religious pendulum way too far.
Brian Morris is Media Director of the National Secular Lobby. He is a former journalist and managing director of The Publicity Agency. He is the author of ‘Sacred to Secular’. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.