Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher Warns the Role of Religion in Australia is Under Attack

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, has warned the ability of Australians to “gather, speak freely, pray together and undertake works of service for others” is being reduced “slice by slice”, as he calls on political leaders to come together to protect religious freedoms. Archbishop Fisher, one of the nation’s most senior Catholics, has issued a warning to Australia’s political leaders that the role of ­religious institutions in society is under growing attack. The move comes amid an Albanese government proposal for new legislation to strip faith-based schools of their protections in the Sex Discrimination Act and introduce new stand-alone protections for religious institutions. The government insists it must have support for the move from the Peter Dutton-led opposition or the nation’s five-year religious freedom policy stalemate will continue. Archbishop Fisher says religious Australians are increasingly at risk of being sacked for expressing traditional Christian beliefs, while their ability to contribute to society is being deliberately diminished.

Fisher says the undermining of religious institutions, including schools and hospitals, is occurring at the same time as ideologues are seeking to force a “radical curriculum and policies on all schools in the area of sexuality and gender”. The archbishop points to the ACT’s forced takeover of Canberra’s Catholic-run Calvary Hospital last year as evidence of the rising threat to religious freedom, along with a transgender activist’s anti-discrimination case against Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous for arguing against gay marriage. Archbishop Fisher urges the government to reject the findings of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) final report on faith-based schools, which was recently released. The report – backed by the Albanese government in draft legislation – argues that section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act allowing religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status should be overturned. Under the proposed change, a new Religious Discrimination Act would be created to give religious institutions the ability to preference teachers based on their faith.

LGBTQI+ groups have urged the government to implement the ALRC’s recommendations. Archbishop Fisher says a “depressing feature” of the national debate on religious freedom is its framing as one group fighting for the “right to discriminate” and the other group fighting for equality. He argues religious schools are in fact “radically inclusive”, which is why parents seek them out. Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles declared unequivocally: “People should not be discriminated against in their employment on the basis of their sexual identity.” Mr Marles said Labor also wanted to ensure Australians were not victims of discrimination based on their faith. But Archbishop Fisher says the proposed changes would “undermine the freedom of parents” to educate their children according to their faith, “and the freedom of religious groups to offer them that option”. “It is deeply troubling that the commission would ignore this long-cherished tradition in Australia, our duties under international law, and its own terms of reference, that required it to make recommendations that would ensure that faith-based schools could continue as a community of faith,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“It is confounding, also, that the final report of the ALRC proposes even greater restrictions on religious schools than were proposed in its widely criticised interim report. Despite a veneer of consultation, the commission completely ignored the concerns raised by religious schools and communities.” Archbishop Fisher went on. Mr. Marles told the ABC’s Insiders that the future of the government’s proposed legal changes were in the hands of the opposition. He said the government would not legislate without bipartisan agreement “because we don’t want to see division or to walk down a path of division in this country”. The position appears likely to condemn the proposed changes, as a growing number of Coalition backbenchers argue they cannot vote on any legislation that includes the removal of section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act. Archbishop Fisher says the ALRC report has failed to give any weight to the benefit that Catholic and other faith-based school have made to “millions of Australian families for more than 200 years”.

“Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop, and her Josephite sisters, set the tone by focusing above all on the needs of poor, indigenous, migrant and remote kids. But all that counts for nought with the ideologues,” he says. “The reality is that church schools here and all over the world provide for children of all sorts – spiritually, academically, sexually and in every other respect – and they demonstrate great reverence for each child and a desire to do their best by them.” He says when the law protects religious freedoms, faith communities use it to serve those around them – including the neediest. He laments that churches’ ability to do so is under threat: “Today that freedom – to gather, speak freely, pray together and undertake works of service for others – is being reduced slice by slice. People are sacked for social media posts that go against the cultural grain or for being part of a church that expresses traditional Christian beliefs. “An archbishop is dragged before a tribunal for teaching the Christian view of marriage. A church hospital is forcibly acquired by the ACT government, apparently because of its ethics.”

“The Productivity Commission has recently expressed a view that no religious activity can truly be seen as charitable – even though the church is by far the oldest and largest provider of education, healthcare and welfare in the world.” Archbishop Fisher says the ALRC report reflects a trend to “talk down the contributions made by believers and their institutions to our social capital and to narrow their opportunities to serve”. “Our political leaders must reject the report not only because of the damage it would do to faith-based schools but also because of the signal it sends about people of faith and their activities not being welcome in our community,” Fisher said.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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