Testing the limits of religious freedom

Dr Stephen Chavura (Campion College)

No one could have predicted 20 years ago that religious freedom would become a vexed issue in our free and apparently secular country, writes Campion College’s Stephen Chavura. Source: The Australian.

Debate on the contentious religious discrimination bill plagued the Morrison Government late last year. It may soon do so again.

Referring to the draft bill, Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses said recently: “The important question is whether it is in the best interests of all Australians and harmony in Australian society.”

But we are polarised on what “best interests” means. It is a value term and, as the culture wars are revealing, our agreement on deep values is often fragile. Every year around January 26, the debate about our national values indicates that the religious freedom issue flows from a deeper uneasiness about what we stand for.

The point of the controversy, as always, is the limits of religious freedom. Religious freedom must be limited by criminal law, but criminal law will be determined by what we judge to be the wellbeing of our society as a whole.

Since the 1960s, the strong Christian underpinning of public morality, not to mention how we understand gender, has been challenged by a post-Christian humanism made up of many strands, including liberal individualism, Marxist liberationism, and the elevation of psychology and therapy to the status of a new theology.

Now, much of traditional Christianity finds itself seeking laws to guarantee the toleration of it in a post-Christian culture.

Enter the religious discrimination bill.

Of course, to understand the limits of religious freedom we should look at potential harm, but in a careful way that seriously appreciates the importance of freedom of speech and religion to a liberal democracy. Take the case of Israel Folau. His critics will say that his views create a culture of homophobia, which leads to poor mental health and even heightened risk of suicide among members of the LGBT community. Such views, so the argument goes, are harmful and should be classified as hate speech and censored.

But this raises serious issues. If we go down this path then the words we are allowed to utter and write are determined by what experts deem “healthy” rather than by what is required to keep the public and government informed and accountable.

Stephen Chavura teaches history and politics at Campion College, Sydney.


Religious freedom bill to test our national identity (The Australian

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