Religious freedom

Religious freedom is, and should be, limited by civil laws. Courtesy: Steve Cassell

The Jesus People consider their sect to be a religion. With beliefs based on hippydom and Christian fundamentalism, they follow an ascetic way of life. They also, allegedly, violently abuse women and practise polygamy, as a way of getting closer to God.

Another sect, or “new religious movement,” the Children of God, sexually abused young children in the name of Jesus Christ. This was not ancillary to their religion; it was part of their observance.

Then there is the sub-section of Muslim believers who mutilate girls’ genitalia.

Illegal behaviour of this kind is subject to criminal sanction by worldly authorities. We’re happy to say these practices are wrong, abhorrent, bizarre, even though they are expressions of sincere religious belief.

Religious freedom has its limits. And nobody questions it.

So why is the right wing of the Liberal Party now arguing that religious belief should provide a talisman against some of the laws the rest of us need to follow?

That is what Victorian senator James Paterson’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017 tries to do.

The Paterson bill wants to exempt the wedding industry – planners, bakers, accommodation providers, florists – from the federal Sex Discrimination Act and state anti-discrimination laws.

These are laws the rest of us accept in the name of a civilised society; in not discriminating against people for who they are.

Why should the “conscience” of a homophobic florist be able to override those laws?

Let’s be clear here. This is not a question about protecting mainstream religious observance from same-sex marriage. That is already protected in the mainstream bill, put forward by Dean Smith and the Liberal moderates. No religious minister under that bill need marry a gay couple against his or her conscience.

Paterson’s bill radically extends this existing principle to any “conscientious objector” who calls themself a “proponent of traditional marriage”. And they should be able to do it by refusing a commercial service.

The law on that is also very clear, and tested up to the High Court.

In 2008, a group talking about suicide prevention with at-risk LGBTI teens from country Victoria booked a getaway at the Phillip Island Adventure Resort. The group, Way Out, did not realise the resort was owned and run by a conservative religious group, the Christian Brethren.

When the Brethren found out who they were hosting, they cancelled the booking, saying the group’s activities were “contrary to God’s teaching as set out in the Bible”, and contravened the resort’s “safety” policy.

“Our definition of safety, because of our Christian faith, does not support or include the promotion of homosexuality,” the camp said at the time.

It was, no doubt, a sincere belief.

Even so, the camp lost the case all the way through the courts until the High Court refused special leave to appeal. The camp, the courts said, was a commercial enterprise, and did not have a “religious purpose”.

It turns out this is another limit on freedom of religion: businesses run (tax free) by religious groups cannot discriminate against their potential customers on the grounds of their sexuality.

None of the commercial enterprises run by “conscientious objectors” that Paterson’s bill seeks to exempt from discrimination law has a religious purpose.

So let’s not be hoodwinked into changing the law to pander to these bogus religious freedom lobbyists.

Like the Jesus People, or the Children of God, or the genital mutilators, they need to obey the same laws as the rest of us.