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The ACT has proved yet again that Canberrans are living in a world of their own.  They have gone ahead and passed a bill aimed at eliminating the legal exemptions to the anti-discrimination laws pertaining to freedom of religion at schools and other religious institutions.  The exemptions have been branded by the Barr government as “loopholes” although they were deliberately included in the original legislation to give religious institutions freedom to run the institutions on religious principles.  The ACT has gone its own way, despite the federal government having yet to respond to the Ruddock review, pre-empting any changes the commonwealth may make.

It has always been the aim of the Greens and the Labor left to get rid of the exemptions to anti-discrimination law.  The last thing Mark Dreyfus did as attorney-general was to eliminate the exemptions in religious aged care.  The timely leaking of parts of the Ruddock review and the outrage that accompanied the leak were deliberately engineered and have given the green-Left the impetus it was seeking to eliminate the exemptions.  In Canberra, where 40%  of children are in independent schools, it will restrict the freedom of parents in the choice of school, under the mantle of eliminating “discrimination” and encouraging “diversity”.

It limits parents’ right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, all of which are part of the international covenants to which Australia is a signatory.  This was blatantly admitted in an accompanying speech by Shane Rattenbury, who sponsored the bill: “The amendments will engage and limit the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief.  They potentially limit the right of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of a child in conformity with their convictions.  However, in the context of the  Discrimination Act as a whole, these limitations are reasonable and proportionate in accordance with s28 of the Human Rights Act.”

This is Rattenbury’s interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Remember what happened to Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous, who was taken to a human rights board for disseminating Catholic doctrine on marriage.  The archbishop was a victim of the human rights apparatus that has redefined and limited our rights by overriding fundamental human rights in favour of the rights of special interest groups.  All rights are important, religion, speech and right of minorities not to suffer discrimination, but the legal structure is skewed in favour of rights that appeal to identified groups, not the broader community.

We have given priority to a handful of rights while ignoring the impact on rights that are just as important.  Hence, the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their moral and religious views is potentially compromised by the palaver about “balance” in the ACT legislation.  Freedom of religion is one of our foundation constitutional principles. Despite talk of the “private” practice of religion and those whingers of the freedom-from­religion camp, the manifest practice of religion cannot be separated from freedom to “private” practice of religion.  One must accept religion is not something separate from daily life.

Belief must be manifest in thought, conscience, which guides morality, and speech. Silencing religion in the public square is not just about silencing bishops; it is about silencing all of us.  Governments have begun to interfere in individual conscience in ways acceptable only in the worst totalitarian regimes.  Victoria has overridden the right to freedom of conscience by requiring doctors to refer patients for abortion.  Religious bodies should not be subject to legislation that affects their foundation principles but, then, religious bodies should not have to rely on exemptions.

Activists have been allowed to shape the debate by accepting that manifestations of religious freedom are, at law, mere incidents of discrimination permissible only because of legal exemptions.  Once they fell into that error, a bad outcome for religious freedom was assured.  The starting point for the debate must be that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, the position in international law.  If this right is given only lukewarm recognition, the inroads on religious freedom will get only worse.  Using them in anti-discrimination laws to refer to the importance of religion is much weaker than a stand-alone act that asserts that everyone has the right to private and public manifestations of religious belief.

This would change the debate as practice of religion would no longer be an exemption from discrimination laws but a manifestation of a right accepted by federal law.  Schools would no longer be allowed to “discriminate” but would be allowed to exercise a right to religious freedom.  The leaking of the Ruddock review was part of a campaign to scare the government ahead of the report’s full release.  There seems little appetite to declare freedom of religion as a full right.  However, those who fear such a law as the harbinger of a bill of rights should think again.  There is a greater fear we will have a half-hearted response to the issue and lose a vital part of our freedom.

Source: Angela Shanahan – Columnist with The Australian