By invoking a supposed threat to religious freedom, the scare campaign against same-sex marriage illuminates a common misunderstanding of what the term means -- highlighting how it has become a proxy for religious privilege, used to shield a particular subset of traditionalist beliefs. The same beliefs held by John Howard, the Australian Christian Lobby, Tony Abbott and conservative pundits such as Paul Kelly.
They should be careful what they wish for, because a wider understanding of religious freedom would threaten the many privileges faith groups continue to enjoy in this country. That's why Christian groups have opposed all new laws aimed at assuring religious freedom since 1980. By trading on an historical respect for faith, but seeking to protect only their own narrow range of beliefs, they risk eroding that respect even further.
Religious freedom cannot mean that one set of beliefs ought to take precedence over another, or that religious ideas should trump nonreligious ideas.
However, religious freedom is widely understood to be exclusive to faith-based beliefs. And, for the 'threat' argument to have any teeth, one must accept that society should actively discriminate in favour of religious convictions.
Cake makers, florists and wedding registrars must be allowed to act in accordance with their faith, notwithstanding the beliefs of those supporting the same-sex union. The 'threat' is that the law will force the faithful to act against their conscience.
This is framed as 'protection'. But, why are only religious beliefs worthy of protection? What this would mean in practice, is the faithful gain a special pass to exempt themselves from the laws of the land. But, paraphrasing George Orwell, why are some beliefs more equal than others?
Sabre-rattlers of religious freedom are running a campaign antithetical to their own agenda.
We generally don't exempt individuals from the law on account of their beliefs. Government employees who disagree with immigration policy cannot refuse to implement policy. Business owners cannot ignore laws which impinge on their conscience. Controversially, only religious organisations get the privilege of exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation.
But here's the problem -- freedom of belief was never intended as a magic wand for the faithful.
Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights vouchsafes "freedom of thought, conscience and religion", and protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, and the right to profess any belief. The progenitor of religious freedom is freedom of thought; which U.S. Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Cardozo described as "the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom".
There is no belief hierarchy where certain beliefs carry more weight than others -- beliefs are protected until they impinge on others. Religious liberty should not become a Trojan horse for perpetuating certain views.
Nor is religious freedom unlimited. The High Court of Australia has always enforced Section 116 rather narrowly, balancing religious freedom with the public good. In 1912 it upheld compulsory military training for boys in spite of their religious objections, and in the 1943 Jehovah's Witnesses case, it ruled that the Constitution did not protect the church from engaging in activities prejudicing the war effort. In Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) it was found that Section 116 allowed laws which indirectly prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Thus, according to our own High Court, the right to manifest religious beliefs is not absolute, and must exist in balance with other considerations.
In many countries, religious freedom is protected as part of a Bill of Rights along with other key freedoms. However, the same-sex marriage opponents explicitly reject a Bill of Rights, evidently, preferring religious freedom to remain unfettered by a modern understanding of human rights.
Which raises the question of how marriage equality represents a threat to our freedoms?
In an article for ABC Religion & Ethics, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher described as follows, the supposedly dystopian future Australia which would result from legalising marriage equality:
- evangelical business owners are threatened with legal action for discriminating against gay weddings,
- religious schools would be forced to teach a state-approved tolerant 'gay friendly' curriculum,
- religious instruction in secular state schools has been scrapped,
- religious organisations have lost their charitable status, and now "pay the same taxes and rates levied on any other business".
What a prodigious slide down the slippery slope! Just how legalising same-sex marriage would suddenly result in the end of tax free status, is not explained. Even so, these 'consequences' are hardly horrifying.
Indeed, they are all issues in which freedom of thought, conscience and religion is balanced with the rights of individuals and the public good.
Religious freedom does not only apply to those who take the Bible literally. Equally, it applies to Christians who support same-sex marriage; to the 40 percent of LGBTQ people who are Christian, to those who hold spiritual beliefs, those of other faiths, and those with no faith.
Capturing the essence of religious liberty, the UK Secretary of Employment said in 2005, that a hallmark of a civilised society is respect for each other's beliefs. Safeguarding and balancing the rights of individuals in a pluralist society enables multiple belief systems to coexist in harmony.
Thus, sabre-rattlers of religious freedom are running a campaign antithetical to their own agenda. They should exercise caution with their blades, lest their wishes are granted.