The Israel Folau affair, which has clogged Facebook feeds around the nation for what seems like months, is not the subject of this episode. But the question of religious freedom and religious discrimination is.
Anglican bishop Michael Stead joins us to discuss why the cause of religious freedom is worth fighting for in our democracy, what the Australian government’s proposed “religious discrimination” legislation is likely to deliver (and not deliver), and what the implications of all this are for Christian individuals and organisations.
One of Michael’s points is that Christians need to inform themselves about these issues—a service that he very clearly and helpfully provides in this episode.
Links referred to:
- Our July event: “Is God green?” with Moore College lecturer Lionel Windsor.
- Our August event: “Why we need Jesus’ help with our sexualities” with pastor Ed Shaw.
- Freedom for Faith.
- Neil Foster’s law and religion blog.
- Contact us with your questions for our Q&A episodes.
Runtime: 41:12 min. Subscribe via
Raelene Castle: We’re here to announce that Wallabies and Waratahs player Israel Folau has today been issued a sanction directing termination of his playing contract for his high level breach of the professional player’s code of conduct. The three-member panel of John …
Tony Payne: Well, in case you’ve been in a coma for the past two months, or cloistered in a silent order of monks, that’s the voice of Raelene Castle, the CEO of Rugby Australia—announcing that Australia’s best rugby player, Israel Folau, was having his contract terminated on account of an Instagram post. Now, Folau’s post, if you’ve never actually heard the original post, it said this, and I quote:
Warning: Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters, hell awaits you. Repent! Only Jesus saves.
Now, two things might strike you as rather strange about all this. The first, obviously, is what is someone with such an obvious strong New Zealand accent doing at the head of Australian rugby? But second, why would an Instagram post expressing in admittedly very bald terms what Christians have basically believed and taught for 2,000 years be the cause of a rugby player being sacked?
Now, never fear, dear listener: this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast is not going to be yet another examination of the Folau affair. There’s been quite enough of those already.
But the larger issue that the Folau incident has brought into very stark relief—and, in fact, the reason why it has been so explosive—is that it symbolises or expresses in some way the growing unease that many people of faith feel in Western society—namely, that the open or public expression of our beliefs just won’t be tolerated any longer by the powers that be—by the mainstream media or the big corporations or the machinery of government—that if we speak in line with our faith in a way that’s offensive or difficult, as far as others are concerned, we’re now going to get into big trouble.
Well, how should we think about this as Christians? Should we welcome it? After all, the New Testament says that a little bit of persecution and hatred should be normal, as far as the faith is concerned. Or should we resist the erosion of these democratic freedoms—freedoms of belief and thought and speech? Well, that’s our subject on this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. And our goal is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and our issue on this episode is religious freedom and religious discrimination.
But before we get into that, we have two cracking events coming up in the next two months—both of which I’m looking forward to very much. I’ll tell you about the first one now and the second a bit later in the episode.
The first is on the subject of “Is God Green?”: it’s on environmentalism and the speaker is Lionel Windsor from the New Testament department here at Moore. Now, this is a really important subject to address, and I’ve been looking forward to addressing it at one of our events for some time, because a fairly deep shade of green environmentalism has become pretty much an orthodoxy in our culture, and we rarely stop to think about it as Christians—about what the Bible says about the environment, about God’s attitude to the world he’s created, and what he calls on us to do as his image-bearers in the world. That’s what we’ll be doing on July 29th here at Moore College at 7:30 at our next CCL public event on “Is God green?” with Lionel Windsor. And tickets for attending in person or via livestream are available as always at ccl.moore.edu.au. Really look forward to seeing you there!
But let’s get to our guest for today’s episode. His name is Michael Stead, and he’s the Anglican bishop of south Sydney. And as one of Michael’s many responsibilities, he’s the Chair of the Religious Freedom Reference Group for the Diocese of Sydney—which means he’s done a lot of thinking about the current state of play with religious freedom in Australia, and has been engaging actively with the government and with other faith groups about the legislation that is being proposed by the government.
Now, I started our conversation by asking Michael why articles about Israel Folau have been clogging my Facebook feed so relentlessly for what seems like months. Why has the Folau situation struck such a nerve—particularly among people of faith?
MS: I think for Christians, they’re looking beyond the particulars of Israel Folau’s case and thinking about what it means more generally for people of faith in a secular workplace, because if Rugby Australia is right and they have a contractual right or legal right to impose a restrictive code of conduct that says there are certain aspects of Christian faith which are off-limits in your private life on your personal Facebook feed or page, well, if that’s true for Israel Folau, then it would also be true for anybody working for Qantas or the Commonwealth Bank—that they can say, “You represent us and you can’t say things about Christian faith which we find offensive.” And so, there’s going to be a whole catalogue of things that you can and can’t say.
You can probably say the nice things about Christian faith—that God is love and—but when it comes to talking about the fact that people who turn their back on Jesus are facing a—an eternity without him, well, no, you can’t say that. Even if you don’t use the “hell” word, if you are in any way—keep—condemning people, then they’ll be able to say, “That doesn’t fit with our brand, and you’re a spokesperson for our brand, and therefore our code of conduct says that you can’t do that.”
So I think that that’s why Christians are seeing that this is actually an inappropriate restriction on Israel’s right to express his own Christian belief.
TP: Do you think Israel’s likely to win his fight?
MS: It all comes down to what the court thinks of the Fair Work Act. So in the Fair Work Act, an employer cannot dismiss an employee on the basis of their religious belief. And so—he—
TP: That’s already in the Fair Work Act.
MS: That’s already in the Fair Work Act. So it’s one of the protected attributes, and so, if the—at the end of the day, the reason why he was dismissed was because of his religious belief, prima facie, they are in breach of the Fair Work Act.
They do have a defence under the Fair Work Act, which is to say that the non-manifestation of religious belief was an inherent requirement of a job. So there are exceptions to these rules. And the way that it would work for other protected attributes like sex discrimination, for example, you would say, well, if you got sacked from your job because you’re a woman, that would be discrimination, but you could come back and say, “Well, no, the job was for a pool attendant—a male pool attendant—and we—and—and so it’s an inherent requirement of the job that the person is a man.”
So Rugby Australia is really going to have to make the argument that it’s an inherent requirement of the role of Israel Folau as a representative of Rugby Australia to promote a certain inclusive image of the sport that precludes the kind of statements that he made that are the subject of the complaint.
And now—so—he’s—what do I think? I think I’ll leave that to the court. I think it’s a stretch. I think that Israel probably does have a valid claim under the Fair Work Act. But I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure what value my opinion is.
TP: But when you put it like that, you can see the kind of chilling effect it has for Christians more generally, because they’re thinking, “I’m doing—there are all people in all sorts of different jobs that, on the face of it, have nothing to do with I’m a Christian; you don’t have to be a Christian to be a rugby player, or not be a Christian to be a rugby player. You’re playing rugby! So why do my personal views about hell, for example, or homosexuality—how are they an inherent requirement of me being a rugby player?” But I think many Christians could very well see that if they have a public role in their company, they’re the face of their company, or they’re a prominent person in their organisation, if their personal views become known, the company can say, “You’re bringing odium on our name—”
MS: That’s right. And that means that any company can pass a very restrictive code of conduct about what you can and can’t say in the course of your private life. This is not just when you’re speaking as a representative of the company; it’s a very—it’s a long overreach into private life—remembering that Israel Folau posted this on his own personal Facebook page and the people who are following him presumably are because they’re following Israel, they—yeah, why would that not apply to, as you say, any public-facing role in a corporation?
TP: Michael, do you think it’s an indication that religious freedom more generally is under threat in Australia? I know Christians have different views about this. Some think that it’s overstating the case to say that religious freedom is under threat: we still can meet and do—
TP: —can do what we want to do, but—
TP: What’s your view on that?
MS: I think that—we’ll always have religious freedom if that means, and only means, the freedom to gather with other people of the same faith behind the closed doors of our church or indeed synagogue or mosque or temple, and practice your religion with those people. I think that kind of freedom is pretty much guaranteed.
The thing that is under question is the whole public manifestation of faith outside the immediate context of the Christian community or the faith community. And I think that that is—“under threat” is probably an exaggeration; I think that there are concerns that it will be circumscribed. That is, there will be things that you can’t say in the public space because they are hurtful or harmful or dangerous ideas. That’s what we’re seeing increasingly overseas is that merely the articulation of what it—what—to this point, have been pretty traditional Christian views about marriage and human sexuality are now being deemed to be harmful and, well, of course, who would want to allow hate speech in public? It’s the expansion of the category of “hate speech”, which used to mean “inciting someone to hatred”. Now “hate speech” seems to be “speech that I hate”. And—
TP: “Speech that offends me.”
MS: That’s right: “speech that offends me” and since I’ve got a right not to be offended, you—that means you don’t have a right to speak that in public. So we’re seeing that restriction in university contexts, where people are not free to speak anymore—no platforming of various speakers—and I think that we’re going to see the same kind of thing more generally in public debate. There’ll be certain topics which are just out of bounds.
In fact, one of the things that I—for whatever view you take on Israel’s post and the way he framed it, he’s actually put hell back on the map in terms of the public discourse: we’re talking about whether people go to hell—though this—I can’t remember the last time in Australia where there was a debate about who is or isn’t going to hell. Mind you, I probably wouldn’t have wanted it the way that it’s unfolded. But I don’t think we can have those debates in the future without the possible consequences that Israel’s facing.
TP: Some people respond to the Christian concern about this—even Christian voices—by saying, “This is really a kind of a privilege and power play by the Christians. We’ve had a prominent role in our society over the last 100—200 years. We’ve been at the centre of the establishment—the centre of Australian and Western society—we see our power slipping away, and this is really kind of the last desperate grasp to hold on to our privilege and position.” How do you respond to that thought?
MS: It’s really important that Christians aren’t just—and aren’t seen to be just—fighting for our own rights. I’m very keen to be advocating for freedom for people of all faith and none. So I’m just as keen to advocate for the right of the Muslim person to articulate their faith as for the Christian—as for the atheist. I think we should all be able to express our views.
And what’s driving that is actually just a vision of what functional society looks like. Functional society actually allows individuals to be individuals—to express their views—to exchange—have a robust exchange—to tolerate difference and to resolve things without forcing people into adopting one position or another. In other words, they—a great freedom of conscience for holding different views and a toleration of those different views. That’s something worth fighting for for the sake of a functional democracy, whether on—it’s not fighting for Christian privilege; it’s fighting for the right for freedom of thought, conscience and belief more widely.
TP: So it’s something that we might regard as a good for our society more broadly than just for Christians.
MS: Yeah! And it’s because—the only reason I’m—I think the Christians have got an edge here—not because we’re particularly clever. It’s just we’ve tried the alternatives and realised that they don’t work. I mean, it’s our sorry history that we have tried forcing people to conform to views by—and both sides: Protestants and Catholics and vice versa—making it illegal to hold the other faith and forcing people to subscribe to a particular view and, indeed, punishing people who don’t. And that hasn’t worked. It hasn’t actually created a context in which society flourishes. It’s actually led to many many wars in Europe particularly that we look back on now and say, “How could they be so silly?” Well, in a sense, we’re doing the same thing now; we’re just—but it’s just—it’s not religious sectarian—the sectarianism that’s driving it; it’s an ideological sectarianism, where we’re not allowing a plurality—a diversity of views to coexist.
TP: I’d like to dig into that a little bit—sort of theologically—philosophically, if you like—because a Christian view of freedom—we see freedom as not just the unrestricted choice to do whatever you want, but freedom to do the good—freedom to live the way God wants us to live. So how do you understand, I guess, the theological basis—or the biblical basis—for a religious freedom argument?
MS: I think I’d start with a notion of human dignity that recognises that God has made us in his image, that we have fallen from that image and that God doesn’t compel us to faith in Jesus—that—and, again, I don’t want to try and articulate a whole theology of—the free will at the moment. I’d say we actually have bounded wills. But we—there is a real sense in which human beings are autonomous agents who are responsible for God for their choices, and just as God doesn’t compel faith in his Son—even though that is the good—instead, he seeks to win us back to himself. Dare I say, woo us back to himself? That’s, I think, the way that persuasion ought to work in our society—that we have space for dialogue, for discussion, for debate, for the possibility of winning people to the truth.
And so, that’s why we want to argue for a society that enables discussion is because we want to be able to persuade people about what, for me, is a compelling truth about Christianity—not compelling in the sense of forcing them against their will to believe, but captivating their wills. So that’s why we want to give space for proper debate on both sides. I’m going to fight for the right for Christians to promote the Christian faith just as I will for Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims to be able to do the same, because ultimately I believe that truth will out—I think that God’s truth will win in the end. And so I’m not afraid of robust debate and I think that as a society, we can—we create space for robust debate, we actually do good service to the gospel.
TP: So Christianity really believes in the power of words to persuade. We believe in a word of promise, which is the basis of everything, and so, in a sense, the theological basis, you’re saying, for fighting for or urging and arguing for a free and open space for discussion as we believe in the power of words to persuade. We’re not into coercion.
MS: That’s right. We’ve been at our worst when we’ve used coercion as a tool for the gospel. I mean, Spanish Inquisition, just to pick an example: it’s not something that actually worked, let alone was morally defensible. But where we see people being confident in God’s word to do its work in converting people and not using the power of the state, that’s actually when the church has flourished. So that’s what we want.
TP: Now, some people I’ve heard, Michael, have said, “Well, that sounds all very well. But do we really want to invest all that much effort and time into this, because, well let’s face it: the church in China, for example: it had all its freedoms taken away, and flourished. So maybe a bit of persecution wouldn’t do us any harm at all. Maybe we should just get on and preach the gospel—and, in fact, maybe the more the government tries to shut us down and persecute us, the better we’ll go.” How do you respond to that?
MS: There may be some truth in that. If that’s what happens at the end of the day, then I’ll certainly accept that and see that as the—God’s gracious work in growing his church through the midst of persecution.
But I don’t think we have to rush into that. There’s nothing in the New Testament that encourages us to seek out persecution. Yes, accept it when it comes, stand firm for Jesus in the midst of it—but not go out there and provoke it. And I think that the difference is in Australia, we actually have an opportunity to speak into the public debate. We have an opportunity at the moment to shape the way our laws will be framed and what will happen over the next couple of decades at least. Because—precisely because we have something they didn’t have in the first century, which was an opportunity to participate in governmental decision-making. And so, my answer is we should give it our best shot, see what God does with it, but not get overly hung up on the outcome. God will be sovereign in this. If we can do something that makes it easier to preach the gospel in the future, that would be a good thing.
If that doesn’t work and the church is forced underground and it grows as a result, that would be a good thing too. But let’s not rush down that path, where we possibly have some good opportunities for making it possible to preach the gospel better in the future.
It’s a little bit like Scripture in schools, I think: there’s an argument that we could have just let that go 10 or 20 years ago, and I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that the day will come when we lose the right to have Scripture in schools. But I don’t want to—I don’t want to rush there quickly; I want to hang onto that opportunity as long as we’ve got it for the sake of the gospel. It’s a little bit like that, where these freedoms will help us with the gospel; let’s use them while we’ve got them.
TP: That’s a good perspective, and “everyone who lives a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” says Paul—
TP: —in 2 Timothy. But it doesn’t say “must seek to be persecuted”, or that—or that seeking out the most difficult and persecuted path is the more godly path. We play the cards we have.
And one of the cards we have is, as you say, the right to participate in a democratic system. I was hearing Mark Dever speak on a related issue to this recently, and he used the phrase “Democratic stewardship” to describe this—that we have the gift of democratic involvement: this is what God has given us in our particular time. We should steward that gift well and participate in it wisely, which it seems to be what you’re saying.
MS: Yeah, and I think, if anything, Christians haven’t thought that way in the last few decades. I think we probably have withdrawn from the state. At the time, I think, we started to withdraw, it was, “Well, that’s okay; the government’s doing a fine enough job, and there’s no threats to religious freedoms, so we’ll just keep on—we’ll stick to our knitting, as it were, and we’ll preach the gospel.” I think now we’re beginning to reap the consequences of that. There aren’t as anywhere near as many strong Christian voices who are going into politics and the strongest voices that are going into politics have got a different kind of agenda. In the sense, by vacating the field a generation ago, we’re now beginning to reap the benefits—well, sorry, not the benefits, the consequences of that abdication. I think now is the time to reengage in a way that we, perhaps, haven’t done as well.
I’m not advocating Christians trying to subvert the political process; I’m just saying to participate in our democracy just like everybody else gets to, and just like every other group of people gets to represent their position, we can do that too.
TP: I think one of the interesting perspectives Christians bring to democracy and to democratic stewardship, in a sense, is that democracy normally functions by every interest group seeking its own benefit, as it were, and struggling for power and compromise in the midst of that contest. The union movement’s after what it wants; you know, the business lobby’s after what it wants.
But the way you’ve described what you want to fight for, in terms of religious freedom and what you think we should contest for in that space, it’s not primarily because we’re trying to protect ourselves or looking after our own interests. Primarily, we see this as a real detriment to our society—as a real backward step for our society, if this is the direction we go in—not just for us, but for people of all faiths. And of none.
MS: That’s right. Yeah. We’re really looking for something that’s best for the way society functions and that’s good for all of us, not just for good for Christians. And if anything at the moment, I think, like—of all the people to be arguing this, I am the most protected, I think: as the bishop in the Anglican church, I’ve got very little threat to my position, but I want to be advocating for the people who don’t have a voice. And it is people of other faiths who are probably more marginalised than the Christians. They need somebody to be able to take a position on some of these things.
TP: I thought this would be a good point to pause and tell you about the second CCL event that’s coming up in the next little while. It’s on August 21st, because we’ve had our own small taste of the issues we’re discussing today just in trying to advertise this event.
Now, we’re putting on this event in partnership with Liberty Christian Ministries and the speaker is Ed Shaw. Ed is a Christian pastor and author from the UK who himself experiences same-sex attraction, and the topic he’s addressing is “Why we need Jesus’ help with our sexualities”. And Ed will share his experience in dealing with these issues, show us what obedience to Jesus really looks like, and he’ll demonstrate that the Bible’s teaching seems unreasonable not because of its difficulties, but because of the missteps that our society and the church have taken in their understanding of the Christian life.
So it’s an evening to talk openly and honestly about the realities of same-sex attraction that many people experience, and to look at what the Bible says about these matters. It’s something worthwhile, you would think, and it’s aimed particularly at Christians.
But it seems that the City of Sydney doesn’t want you to know about this event. We tried posting information about it to the What’s On website of the City of Sydney that it runs to publicise events such as this—as we often do. But this time, we got an email back from the organisers or from the moderators of the website, saying that the event did not meet their submission guidelines. We got a letter from Madeleine from the What’s On website saying,
Your event “Why we need Jesus’ help with our sexualities” has been rejected from publication on the City of Sydney What’s On website.
As outlined in our Event Submission Guidelines, the City of Sydney is not obliged to list events submitted to What’s On and reserves the right to edit or decline any event. The City of Sydney values its diverse communities. Our commitment to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) residents and visitors is demonstrated by our longstanding partnerships with relevant organisations, consultations with the community and advocacy work on important matters like safety and homophobia. We applauded the passing of the marriage equality bill on 7 December 2017 and continue to support LGBTIQ community groups through our grants program and sponsorship of events such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Best, Madeleine
So it seems that the City of Sydney does value diverse communities, but obviously a Christian community that wants to discuss how the teaching of Jesus relates to sexuality is not diverse enough—or at least, is not valued.
Now, I don’t think there’s much to be gained by mounting a protest against this kind of soft discrimination. But it is a small example of what is increasingly common.
And perhaps the best way to protest is to come along to the event, and to bring as many of your friends as possible. We are anticipating a very big crowd, so it would be wise to get in quickly and register for this event. It’s on August 21st with Ed Shaw: “Why we need Jesus’ help with our sexualities”, and you can get all the details at ccl.moore.edu.au.
But back to Michael Stead.
TP: What sort of legislation do you think is likely? The government has talked about the introduction of Religious Discrimination Act; we’ve had a surprising electorate—electoral result in Australia over the last six weeks, and we’re in a position where we have a government who’s saying they’re going to bring something forward. What do you think’s likely to happen?
MS: What I’d love to see is what we’re not going to get. What I’d love to see would be a Religious Freedom Act—something that would actually recognise that Australia is committed to international covenants that protect the freedom of thought, conscience and belief for all people, and this is something that’s both an individual right and something that’s expressed in association with others. It’s a right which is manifest in public; it’s not just something you do in your own little religious community, and it’s something that parents have—that they actually have a right to structure the way that their children are brought up and the religious beliefs that they’re exposed to. So those—that set of rights that I’ve just described there are in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
We’ve kind of assumed that that was the case in Australia for a long time, and so there’s never needed to be any kind of positive statement of those things in Australian law, and there still is no positive statement of those things in Australian law. It would be—it would be great to see some kind of positive statement so that there was actually an acknowledgement that we’ve committed to doing these things, and some way of holding, you know, corporations, individuals, government to account when they try and strip those things away. So with—if schools, for example, tried to strip away the rights of parents to bring up their children in conformity with their religious beliefs, there’s nothing to stop state governments from changing—or even the federal government making those changes at the moment. It—this would be really good to see some articulation of those things, which, as I’ve said, we’ve always taken for granted, but to actually have them in Australian law.
We’re not going to get that. The government has signalled pretty quick that—signalled that all they’re intending to give at the moment is a Religious Discrimination Act, and the Religious Discrimination Act is intended to complete the set of discrimination laws. There is a bit of a missing tooth at the moment: Australia has anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sex, age, race and disability, and—but nothing on the basis of religious belief.
The—some states do protect religious belief: the Fair Work Act, which is a federal government Act, specifically protects religious belief in relation to employment, but not in relation to all other kinds of discrimination. So at the moment, it would not be an offence for a shopkeeper to say, “We won’t serve Muslims in this shop.” That would be an act of religious discrimination and—but that’s not against the law. And so, a religious discrimination act would prevent adverse treatment of an individual on the basis of their religious faith, and it would cover employment—although that’s already covered by the Fair Work Act. But it would also cover education, trade and commerce, and—the various other aspects of life.
That’s probably all what we’ll get from the government. And it will be fairly limited in terms of who it covers. It will cover individuals, but may not cover corporate entities. So that kind of makes sense for the other sex—the other discrimination acts, because corporate entities don’t have those protected attributes; they—corporate entities doesn’t have a sex or a race. And so, you can’t discriminate on a company—against a company on the basis of its gender. But it is possible to discriminate against a corporate entity which is a religious entity on the basis of its faith. It would be good to see an Act that would actually cover both things. So at the moment, as I understand it, the Act would cover me, if I was refused the ability to hire a hall because I was a Christian. That would be an act of discrimination. But if the Anglican Church in Sydney was refused hire of a hall, it’s arguable that it wouldn’t be covered, because it’s a corporate body. So even on its very limited terms, I think it’s not going to go very far in terms of any kind of positive protection. So that’s what we’re likely to get is a Religious Discrimination Act.
TP: Do you feel that’s a sort of better than nothing scenario—better that we have this than nothing? Or what should we think about it?
MS: I’d like to think that we could get something better than that as a starting point. I think that what would be an absolute minimum would be a way of including belief-based organisations within a Religious Discrimination Act, and so that it would cover both individuals and corporates who were discriminated against. Better still would be an Act that then actually spells out how do you go about balancing the right of the individual of faith with the faith-based organisation?
And so the obvious example is what do you do with the Muslim child at the Christian school, or the Christian child at the Muslim school? You’ve got competing rights there: you’ve got what is known as the Article 26 rights to non-discrimination, and then the Article 18 rights of freedom of thought, conscience and belief, and so how do you balance up the fact that the Christian school is there to propagate the Christian religion? Does—but is it discrimination against the Muslim student to require that child to attend chapel? Would it be discrimination if the Muslim child says, “I want to run a Muslim evangelistic group at lunch time, and I want space to do that.” I think most people would say, “No, no. That’s not discrimination by the Christian school; that’s just—the Christian school are there to promote the Christian faith, and in coming to the school, a Muslim child would accept that there would be some expressions of their faith which would necessarily be circumscribed by that. And so, a better Act would actually have some mechanism for saying, “How do you balance those competing rights to—for religious freedom with the right to non-discrimination on the basis of religious freedom?” At this stage, it doesn’t look like the government’s heading in that direction.
TP: Following up on what you were saying earlier about the desirability of a broader positive Religious Freedom Act—something that enshrines the positive right—does that open us up to the danger that a Bill of Rights generally opens us up to? In two directions: firstly, if we—if the government were to give such a positive right, there aren’t many other positive rights like that in Australian law. Would that just open the floodgates to a whole series of further positive rights being legislated for, and then would we have a Bill of Rights sort of by default before we knew it, leading to a whole set of other consequences?
MS: Yeah. I think one of the big concerns about a Bill of Rights based on overseas models is because ultimately it devolves to the courts to determine how you solve these problems of competing rights. In my view, the way that you avoid that is that you’re actually a very clear in the Act that enacts these things—how you go about the process of balancing those rights so that there’s not a lot of uncertainty that requires recourse to the courts to solve it.
I don’t think that there’s anything necessarily inconsistent with having a Freedom Act—a Religious Freedom Act, or something like that, and it doesn’t necessarily open the door to a whole lot of other—to a more—to a broadly based Bill of Rights—mainly because the Religious Freedom right is a different kind of right to the other rights in that it’s almost always expressed in association with others, whereas in most of the other rights have to do with the individual rights which attach to the person—like sex, age, disability. They are intrinsically things that you—that you have at a personal level, whereas religious faith almost invariably is something that’s expressed in association with others. And so that’s why it is a different right that requires a different kind of treatment. And indeed it is—it’s all those issues of what people of faith do in association with each other that requires the special treatment in a Freedom of Religion Act.
TP: Now, Michael, you’re obviously quite involved in engaging with government and advocating for a position that, as you said earlier, creates that space for free belief and conscience and thought as much as possible in our culture and that provides for all groups to be able to not only spread their views, talk about their views, but manifests their beliefs. What about as Christians ourselves—just as everyday Christians: what can we do and how can we get involved in this issue? How can we exercise our democratic stewardship, if I can put it that way, do you think?
MS: I mean, apart from the things that we would do at a spiritual level in terms of praying for leaders and those in authority over us and praying for good governance and peace and a harmonious society, that’s probably the most important spiritual thing to do. In addition to that, if people wanted to get involved, I think the first step would be inform themselves. I think there’s been—there needs to be informed debate and a lot of what has happened in the last 12 months or so has been ill-informed debate—on both sides, I have to say. And so, I think for people to understand what the issues are—to understand what it is that the government is able to do at a legal level—what is achievable at a political level—those kind of things.
But secondly, then, to make your views known to government. Governments are responsive to local members and so—sorry, governments are responsible to constituents, and so, you have a democratic right to ring up your local member. Better still to arrange to meet with your local member and put your views. And we had a number of groups of people do that prior to the last federal election, and it’s surprising how that’s now beginning to bear fruit at the—prior to the election, some of these MPs weren’t interested at all in the issues of religious freedom and now the same people are able to go back and say, “Well, you know that conversation we had where you kind of dismissed me three or four months ago? I want to continue that conversation.” And people are—politicians are much more responsive to that now.
So, yeah, my encouragement would be inform yourself, contact your local member, at very least, write to them—handwritten letter is much better than an email, because emails look like something that might have just been cut and paste, but if you’ve taken the time to write something out by hand, people will think, “Wow! This person cares enough to frame their own thoughts about that.” Or even better still, ask to meet with your local member. Ask to bring a small delegation of Christian friends to express your support for a fully orbed Religious Freedom Act. That would be something that I’m advocating for. If not, a well-formed Religious Discrimination bill that—of the kind that I’ve described earlier.
TP: In many ways, Michael, you’ve done us all in a favour in helping us to be informed just in this conversation. If people wanted to go elsewhere to find out information about how to get more informed about what seems to be being proposed at this point—
TP: —and what we might want to argue for as Christians for the benefit of society, do you have suggestions as to where we might go?
MS: Yeah. My suggestion would be to go to the website for Freedom for Faith. They’ve got a number of really helpful resource papers that sketch out some of the broader issues. They’ve also got papers that they’ve submitted to various government inquiries, so if you really want to dig down into the detail, at the level of the legislative amendments, there’s a lot of material there. That’s probably where I would say—suggest that you start for those kinds of things. I also follow the Law and Religion blog by Neil Foster, who’s the Associate Professor of Law at University of Newcastle.
TP: He’s brilliant, isn’t he.
MS: He’s absolutely brilliant. So I think between Neil and the Freedom for Faith website, that’ll certainly keep you up-to-date on what the issues are. The—yeah. That’s where I’d start.
TP: Terrific. We’ll put those links in the show notes for this podcast, so you can chase those links through.
If I’m going to write to my local member, I’m thinking I’m—particularly for this legislation that’s before the parliament, from what you’ve said, I’m arguing that we definitely want an Act that protects the religious practice of Christians, but we also want, because, as people of faith, we function in communities, we’re always corporate by our very nature, we definitely want an Act that protects the actions and the rights of entities—of organisations—
MS: That’s right.
TP: —of churches, and that’d be something—a key thing to argue for.
MS: That’s right. Yep. The big debate we’re going to have, probably not right now, but sometime in the next six to twelve months, is going to be around the right of religious organisations to be able to choose and preference staff who are either Christians or at least support the Christian faith in some way. And that’s going to be the argument around schools, but not just around schools; in all those places where Christians gather together for a Christian purpose, whether it’s to be a Christian hospital or a Christian youth ministry centre, or a Christian Anglicare kind of an entity, or a Christian school, to what extent should we be able to say, “We really want Christians to work here,” and that—then if we want to, we should be able to say, “Everybody down from the C—from the CEO to the gardener needs to be a Christian”—that that’s going to be the contest that we’re going to have to—going to have to win, because at the end of the day, if we have Christian organisations where the only people that we can require to be Christians are those where there is an inherent requirement to the role, you’ll end up with Christian schools, where the chaplain, probably the Christian studies teachers, and maybe the head are Christians, and that’s about it. And it—
TP: And it won’t be legal to discriminate for the other positions—
MS: That’s right.
TP: —to say we’d rather have a Christian maths teacher; it won’t be possible to make that decision.
MS: That’s right. It would be discrimination to make that, and therefore within a generation, we’re going to end up with Christian schools which are Christian in name only.
TP: Well, thanks for joining us today on this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I’m really looking forward to seeing you at the two CCL events that are coming up soon—that’s “Is God green?” on July 29th and “Why we need Jesus’ help with our sexualities” on August 21st. Both of those events are at Moore College, and you can get all the details and register whether to come in person or via livestream as many groups and individuals are increasingly doing by going to our website: that’s ccl.moore.edu.au.
We also love to hear from you: if you have any questions about today’s episode, or any questions in relation to the Christian life, please get in touch: send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We have another Q&A episode coming up soon, and we’ll be answering your questions then.
But that’s all for today. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.