With Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill current under discussion, we sat down with Father Rod Bower to address the subtext of the issue.
In December 2017, then treasurer Scott Morrison announced that he’d be pushing for laws in 2018 that prevented discrimination against Christians and those of other religious faiths.“Where I think people are being offensive to religion in this country, whichever religion that might be, but particularly the one I and many other Christians subscribe to,” Mr Morrison told SMH, “we will just call it out and we will demand the same respect that people should provide to all religions.”
Today, as the country awaits the introduction of the Morrison-introduced Religious Discrimination Bill, more than a few members of the Australian constituency are questioning why this issue has suddenly become of such national importance.
Firstly, questions around religious freedoms have taken a prominent place in the current national debate. In your opinion, why is it such a priority for Canberra?
This religious freedom debate is being couched in somewhat deceptive terms, in that there’s a minority group – who are quite vocal – that are claiming some form of religious persecution.
I don’t believe it is true. The whole thing is being couched in a rather dishonest and disingenuous framework.
But, because they are quite vocal on the conservative side of the political spectrum – and because of the prime minister’s own particular religious proclivities – they do seem to have his ear. And that’s a cause of some concern.
That’s why they’re getting the attention that they have. And it’s certainly unrepresentative of the wider Christian community, and the wider faith community.
The Morrison government is about to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill into parliament. You’ve raised concerns about this. What is problematic about legislating to stop discriminating against those of faith in the current setting?
My concerns about this come from a firm belief that we all should live in the same civic universe. And when we don’t all live in the same civic universe, then human rights are in jeopardy.
We have laws that, generally speaking, restrict discrimination against people on the grounds of things they have no control over: age, gender, race, sexuality, disability. They are the categories of our anti-discrimination laws.
So, in order to discriminate against someone for something over which they have no control needs to be deeply considered, because all of a sudden, you excise those people from your civic universe. And that’s an abuse of human rights.
Is what we’re seeing today an expression of what the religious freedoms debate has always been about, or is it being commandeered in a sense?
It’s being commandeered. This is being commandeered by the conservative Christian lobby. And there’s nothing about this debate that isn’t about sacking gay teachers from Christian schools, or expelling transgender or gender diverse students. That’s what it comes down to.
The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights – which we are a signatory to – is very clear on this: that everybody has the right to hold a religious view of any description. But, our rights to manifest that view can be, under certain circumstances, restricted by law.
To discriminate against people on the grounds of sexuality is against the law. And I do not believe that your religious views should give you exemption from that.
You’ve just touched on this, but the release of the Ruddock review recommendations drew public attention to religious exemption laws. These allow religious educational institutions to discriminate against employees and students based on sexuality. Are these provisions that already exist in law warranted in any way?
I don’t believe that they are. And for several reasons. One is that it means people of diverse sexualities do not live in the same civic universe as I do. And that’s an abuse of human rights.
Secondly, we have very clear laws about anti-discrimination brought in by our parliament, and yet, public money is going to institutions that basically break those laws with impunity because of exemptions.
The Ruddock review allowed for that on the grounds that those schools and institutions make a very public statement in the prospectus on their website that people of diverse sexualities would be discriminated against. And if that legislation is to stand in its present state that’s a helpful safeguard. But, it’s still not ideal.
Thirdly, these are educational institutions funded by the public purse. There is no argument that education within a discriminatory framework is a healthy education. In fact, it’s very unhealthy. So, the government should not be funding educational frameworks that are not in the best interest of the student.
You recently spoke at the Community Action Against Homophobia religious protections bill rally. And you made the statement “to be truly religiously free, is to be free of the need to discriminate”. Can you expand on that?
The ultimate goal of any faith system is to reach a sense of unity – or oneness – with the divine and with the entire creation. That is the goal of religious traditions.
To have the kind of attachments that lead you to exclude another human being is not the ultimate goal of any religious tradition. So, part of that faith journey is to be free of those attachments.
To be free of the need to discriminate is the ultimate goal of the journey for us all.
And lastly, given the position that we’re now in, with the federal government about to introduce these new laws, religious exemptions already being on the books, how would you propose we move forward from here?
Certainly, there’s no prospect of those being removed. But, they shouldn’t be enhanced.
I support Ruddock’s recommendation that those institutions need to be very clear that they have a discriminatory framework in their employment and enrolment structure, in the case of a school.
And I would predict that if those institutions hold to that recommendation, then they’re one generation away from extinction.