The hysterical response to the government’s attempts to secure the basic right of faith-based schools to operate according to the tenets of their religion exposes the grave danger facing religious freedom in Australia.
Last week’s debate in parliament, as well as much of the related media coverage, betrayed a profound lack of understanding about the meaning of religious freedom in a free and pluralistic society. Two misconceptions stand out.
The first is that the essence of last week’s clash was about whether faith-based schools should have a right to discriminate against pupils on the basis of their sexuality alone. Despite plenty of grandstanding to the contrary, there is clear consensus inside and outside parliament that gay students should not be singled out for different treatment. No Christian school — or any school so far identified — has sought to expel a student for being gay.
What is at stake, however, is the far weightier issue of whether faith-based schools should be free to teach religious doctrines that conflict with progressive values that have the backing of anti-discrimination statutes. How this question is resolved could impose unprecedented limits on how faith-based schools approach their mission of providing a religious education in contemporary Australian society.
Should a faith-based school, a theological college or seminary, acting on the basis of its religious beliefs, be allowed to refuse a gender transitioning student to run a club or publish posters or web pages at the institution advocating for gender-fluid ideology?
Should a faith-based school be allowed to refuse a male student who wishes to identify as female but has yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery the use of female toilets and changing rooms?
And should a religious institution freely be able to articulate its teachings on sexuality, human relationships and marriage?
These scenarios are not hyperbole but precisely the type of conduct that could see faith-based schools hauled before anti-discrimination tribunals if the ALP’s amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act are passed, according to legal scholar Mark Sneddon.
Yet Labor senator Penny Wong, her party and large sections of the media insist this kind of intrusion into the operation of faith-based schools has no real bearing on religious freedom. This goes to the second misconception that has corrupted this debate: that religious freedom can meaningfully coexist with laws that weaponise subjective offence.
Foundational human rights such as freedom of religion differ from goals of social justice enshrined in legislation. The former is a birthright of a liberal democracy: one of the rights that’s essential to being a free person in a free society. It is non-negotiable because it is inseparable from freedom of speech, thought and conscience. These rights are fundamental because without them the underlying basis of liberal democracy falls away. Like freedom of speech, true freedom of religion protects faith regardless of its content. After all, if religious teachings are forced to abide by the secular morality of the state, it is no longer free but licensed.
To be sure, religious freedom in practice may be subject to reasonable limits in the interests of public safety and preserving human dignity. But if freedom of religion is to be anything more than a mealy-mouthed platitude, it has to mean the freedom to express faith through worship and teaching.
In the context of Australia’s school system, that means respecting the right of parents to enrol their children in a school founded for the express purpose of providing a faith-based education. And it means respecting the right of those schools to provide religious teachings on sexuality and human relationships that gainsay the progressive zeitgeist.
This gives the lie to any pretence that Labor’s amendments provide an accommodation between religious freedom and anti-discrimination law. In truth, Labor’s position represents an elevation of secular morality over religious doctrine without precedent in Australia’s history. Religious freedom would formally acquire the status of a second-rate right. As a result, faith-based schools would risk being forced to choose between their faith and anti-discrimination law, gutting them of their religious foundation.
The passage of Labor’s bill also would repudiate international human rights jurisprudence, which has long emphasised the equal status of all rights, including religion. It would mean Australia has chosen to take a different path: one that prioritises the right of a person to express his or her sexuality as dominant to and overriding of the right to faith, and the right of parents to raise their children according to their own beliefs.
More important, it would mark a betrayal of our society’s pluralistic foundations. According to the 2016 census, seven in 10 Australians still hold religious beliefs. Faith-based schooling remains a popular option; it accounts for about a third of school students. The millions of parents who send their children to faith-based schools do so because they want their child’s schooling to be based on the culture, values and teachings of a specific religion.
Public opinion is on these parents’ side. Opinion polls have consistently shown higher levels of public support for the protection of religious freedom than for same-sex marriage.
Protecting the freedom of faith-based schools isn’t about endorsing any particular religious belief. It’s about recognising that for us to continue to be a diverse and harmonious society, we must cherish and respect the right of all religious Australians to practise their faith as they see fit. What could be more tolerant than that?