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Freedom of conscience, thought and religion - but perhaps not in Victoria

By David Palmer - posted Friday, 31 July 2009


A very serious matter, fundamental to all Australians, is facing significant interference in the Victorian Parliament. Amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act are currently under consideration, changes which potentially threaten values we hold dear - our human rights.

As matters currently stand the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995, like similar legislation in other states, includes exemptions for a variety of organisations including religious organisations and single sex organisations such as private clubs and gymnasiums.

Right now the government dominated Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) of the Victorian Parliament has before it an Options Paper that calls for a significant narrowing of these exemptions. Public hearings are scheduled for the August 4 and 5.

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The Victorian Government faces a dilemma common to all leaders. How do you serve the interests of one group without jeopardising the interests of another? Perhaps the bigger question which needs to be asked is at what point do communal rights overtake individual or private rights and visa versa?

The United Nations considers religious freedom to be one of the fundamental tenets of democratic freedom. Accordingly, the UN has made extensive resolutions in various declarations and covenants over the past 60 years to which Australia is a signatory, to protect religious belief and practice, the right of parents to choose education for their children in accord with their moral and religious belief and the right of persons of religious belief to engage in the public domain, all under the heading of freedom of conscience, thought and religion.

We all understand the importance of “everyone shall have the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion”. Surely no one would consider arguing with the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which states: "Considering that religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life then that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed."

The Options Paper itself demonstrates an astonishing level of ignorance about the place of religion in Australian life as well as the very nature of religion.

In the first place, in order to justify its attempt to intrude upon the freedom of religious institutions in general, but schools in particular, the Options Paper attempts to drive a wedge between so called core and non core activities.

This distinction between core and non-core simply does not exist. For Christian, Jew and Muslim, religion is a whole of life affair.

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Historically, from the earliest days of the Church, Christians cared for their fellow citizens. The noted sociologist Rodney Stark, in reviewing the historical evidence for the growth of the Church to a position of pre-eminence in the ancient world by the 4th century, concluded that it was due in large measure to the care of the Christians for their own as well as for their pagan neighbours during the devastating plagues of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

This has been the pattern ever since, and even now continues despite the rise of the modern state. The Church has always been to the forefront of education and the provision of health and welfare services.

In the second place, it is not so much religion demanding its exemptions, but ordinary Australians who prefer the schools, hospitals, welfare services and aged care facilities of religious institutions. Parents who send their children to religious schools want a religious education for their children. They expect all the staff, not just the religious education teacher, to be faith affirming people who model the tenets of their religious belief in daily school life. Not only do they want these schools but they are prepared to pay for the privilege. In this way the state actually benefits financially from the existence of these schools. Those opposed to faith based schools need to ask why these faith based schools continue to spring up despite the considerable ongoing commitment and effort required to make a success of them.

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About the Author

David Palmer is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

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All articles by David Palmer

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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