In the release of the Ruddock review into religious freedom, our nation has a rare opportunity to consider the role and relevance of the values on which it was founded.
It is an opportunity to step back from the hysteria of recent times, in which religious freedom has been cast not as a fundamental right but as an unjust and oppressive desire to harm minorities. It is an opportunity to seek the buy-in of all Australians for the core beliefs that will shape our national identity for the century to come.
The contest is in truth a clash between classical liberal democracy and identity politics. The former, rooted in the importance of a genuine "live and let live" approach as the cornerstone of individual liberty in all of its forms, sees religious freedom as one of many freedoms worth protecting, including freedom of thought, speech, conscience and association. These freedoms, along with the protection of private property and the rule of law, are important because they allow all people an equal opportunity to pursue their personal and economic potential.
In contrast, identity politics prioritises the rights of those people who are – when viewed through the lens of postmodern, colonialist or similar theory – regarded as sufficiently oppressed as to warrant protection. To obtain the protection, or indeed the promotion of the state, one must identify some attribute through which a special victimhood arises. These can be outside an individual's control (such as sex, race or disability) or matters of personal choice (such as gender identity or sexuality).
By definition, those who have no special attributes harm those who do. Believers in identity politics marshal the resources of government to "help" these victims, whether by encouraging or mandating affirmative action-style programs, or by using legal means to prohibit actions and words that are an affront to them.
The fuss about banning religious schools from discriminating against gay pupils by expelling them (a practice religious schools do not engage in, by the way) highlights the clash of these viewpoints. If the issue were simply making sure gay children could complete their education in religious schools, the government's amendments to Labor's bill in the Senate would have been uncontroversial.
The controversy arises because it is not enough for adherents of identity politics that gay pupils receive education in a religious school if that is the pupil's wish. They insist upon the right to restrict the beliefs, thoughts and speech of people and institutions that are religious, because those dominant in that sector, namely Christians, are to them "the oppressor".
If governments are permitted to censor the tenets of a faith that can be taught, we take away from religious schools their ability to use their beliefs to shape a culture distinct from the public system; often their very attraction. Paying for a private school is one of the many tools available to concerned parents to cater for the differing needs of each child. Education is a field in which one size really does not fit all.
Those who support Labor's bill often claim a need to separate church and state in support of it. Such an argument is misconceived, in that Labor's bill represents an unprecedented intrusion of government into the religious arena, by attempting to regulate the content of a faith. Labor's bill reaches beyond the classroom and into the pulpit, synagogue, temple or mosque and would operate to censor that which can be taught in a religious gathering. Section 116 of the Constitution does not only provide that the commonwealth should not establish a national religion. It also operates to protect religious believers from having their freedom to believe restricted by the state.
There is a third, equally flawed, argument offered by some who oppose the notion of religious freedom. It is to claim that the civil protection of religious freedom would empower faiths that are associated with criminal acts. Those concerned about Islam suggest child marriage, female genital mutilation and domestic violence would be licensed by religious freedom. No attempt to value religious freedom in our civil society, whether by allowing exemptions to discrimination law or by providing a positive right, need override the criminal law. This argument either reflects a misunderstanding of the difference between criminal and civil law, or is a base appeal to prejudice. Either way, it is wrong.
Those who value freedom as a core value of a liberal democracy must consider the right to religious freedom as at least equal to the right of a person to be free from discrimination on the basis of his or her sexuality. The answer, I suggest, lies in the subtle distinction between acceptance and affirmation. A free and fair society accepts all. But to demand that society affirm all is a different thing: one cannot demand affirmation of all life choices without seriously curbing freedom of thought, speech and faith. Religious schools accept all, but they should not be required to affirm all.
The Ruddock Review might have been foisted upon this nation as a hangover from the same-sex marriage debate. Yet, it is an opportunity to refresh for the years to come the basic values that all Australians, no matter their lifestyle, should regard as fundamental to individual liberty and real equality.