It’s Not About “Religious Freedom”, It’s Really About The Right To Be A Bigot

Don't let the government's new plan fool you.


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On first glance, today’s news that the government has appointed a body to examine religious freedom in Australia is a good thing.

The PM says the body has been appointed to examine religious freedom as a whole and not just in relation to marriage, although there’s no doubt the inquiry was prompted by last week’s successful Yes vote. It also warns that enshrining religious freedom into law comes with a “high risk of unintended consequences”, which appears to be a reference to Sharia law.

By separating the “religious freedom” question from the process of legislating for marriage equality, the government has showed it’s serious about making marriage equality law by the end of the year.

It also means that any religious freedom provisions will be debated separately from any amendment to the Marriage Act. That means conservatives (probably) won’t be able to draft a bill so full of “religious freedom” protections that Labor and the Greens would be unable to vote for it.

A genuine discussion about religious freedom may also include the notion that Muslim women are entitled to wear what they want, and finally put to bed any calls to ban the burqa.

These are all good things, but there’s also a lot about this inquiry that should raise red flags.

Let’s Talk About Philip Ruddock

The man heading the inquiry is Howard government Attorney General Philip Ruddock. Philip Ruddock is not a nice man.

It was Ruddock who, in 2004, literally wrote the law that barred same-sex marriage in Australia and set us on the long path that may finally end by Christmas. It’s because of Ruddock that every celebrant is legally compelled to remind us that marriage is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”, at every wedding in Australia.

He’s also the architect of the Pacific Solution that sees refugees placed into off-shore detention. Amnesty International once asked him to stop wearing his Amnesty badge in parliament because of his approach to human rights.

Also on the panel will be the Australian Human Rights Commission President Rosalind Croucher; Catholic priest, lawyer and Yes voter Father Frank Brennan; and Bond University Chancellor Annabelle Bennett. There will be no one on the panel to specifically represent the LGBTIQ+ community.

These people are all more-than-qualified to sit on the panel, but it’s Ruddock who will be leading it, and it was Ruddock who gave us a glimpse into his thinking when he was interviewed by Karl Stefanovic on Today this morning.

When asked how he could strike a balance between religious freedom and other rights, Ruddock merely spoke about the many religious groups he’s proud to be affiliated with.

“I have a good deal of contact over time with people from quite diverse groups,” he said. “I certainly know a lot of the Christian leadership. I know many in the Islamic community. I’m very much focussed on the Hindus and the Buddhists and I know most of the people who are involved in those religions as well. I hope I can talk to them about the way forward and engage them in a positive way.”

Not a lot of mention of queer people there.

We Know What “Religious Freedom” Looks Like

The term “religious freedom” in this context is misleading. When prominent No campaigners spoke about religious freedom during the postal survey, they were really talking about the wholesale rolling back of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws so that they could do whatever they please.

We got a glimpse of the kind of “religious freedom” they want in the odious bill championed by conservatives last week.

To understand the bill you have to understand its author, Liberal Senator James Paterson. Paterson went from an elite Melbourne public school, to the University of Melbourne, to the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to work as a political staffer, to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), to the Senate by the age of 30. You might call that the path of least resistance.

He made his name at the IPA, an organisation dedicated to defending the rights of individuals and corporations to do pretty much whatever they please. Paterson says he voted Yes in the postal survey and I have no reason to doubt him. Allowing consenting adults to marry whoever they choose is entirely in keeping with his rigid ideology of personal freedom above all else.

It’s the same ideology that regurgitated itself onto the pages of Paterson’s bill last week. The bill would have legalised a form of gay apartheid in which businesses could refuse service to same-sex couples, and it would have overridden state anti-discrimination laws — a thoroughly illiberal notion.

The bill was so bad that even some conservatives couldn’t stomach it, and it was dropped before the results of the survey had even been announced. But that doesn’t mean the bill’s ideas have been forgotten, and this “religious freedom” inquiry could very well be the thing that resuscitates them.

Stay Vigilant

Senior marriage equality campaigners aren’t hitting the panic button over this inquiry yet, but they are being very vigilant about any back-door attempts to legalise discrimination. They feel that this inquiry is more about placating conservative hardliners — think Abbott, Abetz and Andrews — than anything else.

They’re also confident that in the current political climate, the government doesn’t really have the political capital to roll back anti-discrimination laws as far as some conservatives want.

Those religious No-voting migrants in Western Sydney that we’ve heard so much about lately aren’t likely to vote for the Coalition if it attempts to roll back section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act — and the government really can’t afford to lose votes right now.

A good guide on how to feel about this inquiry comes from the reaction of senior No campaigner Lyle Shelton, who this morning tweeted that freedom of speech is “about to be wiped out before Christmas”.

Shelton knows that he lost the debate on religious freedom when the No campaign was so resoundingly beaten last week, but he’s also pledged to keep up the fight. You can bet that when the Ruddock inquiry calls for submissions, Shelton will be an enthusiastic contributor.

That means anyone who supports equality needs to remember that the fight for minority rights won’t end when marriage equality is legislated. It’s only just beginning.

In the meantime, you can re-assure yourself with the knowledge that anything that upsets Lyle Shelton this much can’t be all bad.

Rob Stott is the Managing Editor of Junkee Media. Follow him @Rob_Stott