WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS BEHIND THE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DEBATE

While we might have expected the Ruddock Review into Religious Freedom to have enhanced religious freedoms, in the absence of the government adopting any of its recommendations, the ALP introduced a Bill into the Senate in the last sitting week to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the freedoms religious bodies currently enjoy which allow them to teach and run their institutions according to their religious beliefs. Fortunately that Bill was delayed and probably will go to a committee for consideration. In the meantime, Bill Shorten introduced an identical Bill into the House of Representatives which fortunately has also been delayed and will not now be considered until Parliament resumes in February.

The bills would remove the freedoms of:

  • religious schools and parents who send their children there
  • religious adult colleges and training institutions for missionaries, chaplains and religious workers (including theological colleges); and
  • all religious bodies like churches, mosques, synagogues and temples to provide education services to their members and the public through sermons, religious education classes for children, youth or adults and courses on issues like marriage, family and relationships.

This is an assault against the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and religion which are the basis of a properly functioning democracy. It would make illegal the teaching of religious principles which don’t subscribe to the secular worldview that transgenderism is perfectly good and same-sex or transgender relationships or “marriage” is as equally valid as traditional marriage.

The bills would make it illegal to take any action to uphold the religious sensibilities of faith-based institutions which currently allows them to discriminate against people on the grounds of, for example, someone in an openly homosexual relationship or someone identifying as transgender or advocating for transgenderism in a school. This bill would even restrict religious institutions from teaching their biblically-based position on heterosexual sexual relations outside of marriage.  Editor’s note: This may not be the intention of the legislation proposed by Bill Shorten (as claimed by Mr Shorten), but according to legal advice it will be the outcome of such legislation as currently drafted.

I am forwarding this serious warning and call to action to you from Professor Mark Sneddon, Adjunct Professor of Law Monash University; Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society and Legal; and Partner at Holley Nethercote Lawyers. This warning and call to action refers to religious freedom debate in the Federal Parliament. If passed, this law change will curtail your freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Letter of advice given to Christian Schools Australia by Professor Mark Sneddon Adjunct Professor of Law at Monash University.

You are probably aware that the Senate has been debating an ALP Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove existing exemptions for religion and restrict the freedom of religious schools. What you may not be aware of is that this Bill has much wider effects. It will also:

  • restrict the freedoms of religious adult education colleges including theological colleges and religious institutions for training missionaries, chaplains, youth workers etc; and
  • apply to the acts and practices of a religious body (such as a church, temple, mosque or synagogue) which are connected with the provision of education by that body, this would seem broad enough to include sermons, and any education based on the Bible, the Koran, the Torah and other scriptures to adults, youth and children in the religious body, whether general scripture education or education applied to topics like relationships, marriage and sexuality.

At time of writing the Bill seems likely to pass the Senate, perhaps with some government amendments. It would then move to the House of Representatives later next week where the government does not have a guaranteed majority and it may pass that house also, becoming law.

The purpose of this email is to alert you to the wider application of the Bill for religious freedom and to ask you to tell your people and to contact your Senators and MHRs urgently to oppose this Bill.

Some examples of the Bill’s effects are as follows.

1. Religious schools and theological and adult training colleges

If a religious school, theological college or adult education institutions acting on the basis of its religious beliefs:

  • refuses to admit students or expel them or impose any other detriment on a student because of the student’s relationship status, sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • refuses permission for a sexually active student (straight or gay) or gender transitioning student to run a club or publish posters or webpages at the school or college advocating for sex outside marriage (straight or gay) or fluid gender ideology; or
  • refuses permission for a same sex oriented student to take a same sex romantic partner to a school or college function; or
  • requires a male student who wishes to publicly identify as female and whose appearance is male and has not had sex reassignment or cosmetic surgery to use the male change rooms and toilets rather than the female ones, and to be addressed by the male pronoun;
  • the school or college is “subjecting the student to a detriment” on the grounds of relationship status or sexual orientation or gender identity and can be sued under s.21 of the Sex Discrimination Act.

2. Religious bodies like churches, mosques, synagogues and temples engaging in acts or practices in connection with the provision of education by the body e.g. sermons, religious instruction, scripture classes

A religious body could discriminate in the provision of education services by it (or the facilities through which they are provided) under s.22 of the Act in several ways:

(a) by the manner in which the religious body provides the other person with those services or makes those facilities available to the other person (e.g. the manner of the sermon or scripture teaching is discriminatory because the content of the teaching based on sacred scriptures is critical of same sex marriage or of the behaviour of those having sex outside marriage (straight or gay) but not of other forms of sexual behaviour, or because the teaching criticises the idea and practice of gender transitioning).

(b) by refusing to provide a person with those services or to make those facilities available to the other persons (e.g. the religious body provides separate training on marriage, relationships and sexuality to men only and women only groups, or refuses to provide training on relationships to people known to be actively engaged in extramarital sex);

(c)  in the terms or conditions on which the religious body provides the other person with those services or makes those facilities available (e.g. the religious body requires attendees at the training to affirm that they are living godly lives in accordance with the teachings of the religion including on relationships and sexuality).

Such discrimination can lead to a complaint and lawsuit under the Sex Discrimination Act if the Bill is passed.

Additional Resources

I have written in my capacity as the Executive Director of the Institute for Civil Society and you can also find a copy of this paper and our other work on the issue at www.i4cs.com.au  and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/institute4civilsociety/

Freedom for Faith’s Facebook page has recent posts on this issue including posts from pastors and others about their conversations with and letters written to MPs protesting about this Bill – see https://www.facebook.com/freedomforfaith/

Professor Neil Foster has some excellent recent blogs on this Bill and the Coalition’s proposed amendments at his Law and Religion blog:

https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/2018/12/01/government-amendments-to-religious-schools-bill/

The Gospel Coalition presents a Christian perspective on the Bill at https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/religious-freedom-immediate-threat/

The Coalition Senator’s dissenting report in the Senate Committee inquiry into exemptions and faith based schools is a useful resource – Legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff

Please consider carefully, pray and act.

The position of cross-bench Senators and MHRs will be important. If you are able to contact them that would be most helpful.

Kind regards,

Professor Mark Sneddon
Adjunct Professor of Law Monash University
Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society
Principal Sneddon Legal and Partner Holley Nethercote Lawyers

Source: Mark Spencer, Executive Officer Policy, Governance and Staff Relations Christian Schools Australia Limited

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