Fresh push for freedom of religion 

Fresh push for freedom of religion 

Joe Kelly — The Australian — 7 July 2018


Social Services Minister Dan Tehan has called for a religious discrimination act to provide greater protections to people of faith, in a move that raises the stakes for the Turnbull government as it responds to a key ­review of religious freedoms.

Delivering the St Thomas More lecture in Canberra last month, Mr Tehan said the “creeping encroachment from the state on religious belief” was a key issue, given new conflicts in the areas of euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the sanctity of the confessional.

However, he identified the main threat to religious freedom as the growing influence of ­empowered minorities that used political correctness as a weapon against traditional beliefs and ­customs.

The address, being made public today, represents a rallying cry for Coalition MPs who ­expect Malcolm Turnbull to deliver a substantive response to the ­review of religious freedoms led by former attorney-general Philip Ruddock following the same-sex marriage victory last year.

Mr Tehan, who describes himself as a “far-from-perfect Catholic”, said all Australians of faith should “take a stand” and “strongly defend our rights and responsibilities to take part in ­debates of national significance”.

His proposal for a new ­religious discrimination act offers a path for the Turnbull government to legislate at a federal level to address concerns that ­religion is being driven from the public square. Citing John Howard — a leading advocate for traditional marriage — Mr Tehan warned against the rise of “minority fundamentalism”, which the former prime minister has called “the ­assumption that traditional beliefs and practices represent an ­attack on those who do not support them”.

“Australia has reached an ­unusual point where the tools of oppression — sowing the seeds of division, conquest, manipulation and cultural division — are being wielded by the minority against the majority,” Mr Tehan said.

“We have not realised Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where you are judged by the content of your character, not the colour of your skin. Instead we have woken up to a nightmare where the value of your contribution to a debate depends on what you claim to be a victim of.”

Mr Tehan pointed to the push to sack Australian rugby union star Israel Folau over his social media posts on homosexuality and the boycott on Coopers Brewery products after it sponsored a debate between both sides of the same-sex marriage debate.

“In a liberal democracy, people must have the freedom to air unpopular views, including those ­informed by their faith, and those views must be open to challenge,” Mr Tehan said. “My observation, however, is that there is more disrespect directed at people who share their faith publicly and that is to the detriment of us all.”

There is frustration in ­Coalition ranks at Mr Turnbull’s ­decision to facilitate the passage of a same-sex marriage bill through parliament last year without a series of protections proposed in a set of amendments.

Promoted by a range of senior MPs, including Scott Morrison, Michael Sukkar and Andrew Hastie, the amendments were supported by a majority of Coalition MPs but defeated on the floor of parliament with Labor opposition.

Liberal senator James Paterson, a supporter of same-sex marriage who advocated for greater protections for religious freedoms, yesterday told The Australian it was important for the government to deliver a meaningful response to the Ruddock review.

“The Ruddock review provides the government with a unique ­opportunity to secure the freedoms of Australians with faith,” Senator Paterson said. “We all ­deserve the equal right to live our lives ­according to our values, free from state coercion.”

There is concern within the ­Coalition that a weak ­response to the Ruddock review could reopen an ideological divide within the government and allow Labor a chance to steal the initiative, given that it holds nine of the western Sydney seats that voted against change in last year’s plebiscite. One Liberal MP said“The time for action is now. We need to protect conscience and ­religious faith because Labor and the Greens won’t.”

The Ruddock review was ­delivered to the government in May after receiving thousands of submissions. It is unlikely the review or the government response will be released until after the July 28 Super Saturday by-elections.

Mr Tehan bolstered his case for a new religious discrimination act by relying on census data to throw forward to an Australia where people of faith had become a minority with only limited legal protections in the form of ad-hoc exemptions to anti-discrimination laws. He warned the trend towards atheism in the 2016 census was “especially stark” among those aged 18 to 34, with 39 per cent saying they had “no religion” — more than three times the number who identified as Christian. “If this trend continues — and there is no reason to believe it won’t — then one day in the ­future the Australians who are part of any religion will become a minority,” Mr Tehan said.

“In preparation for that day, we need to consider how we will defend religious rights in this country from political correctness.”

This article was originally published in The Australian.

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