December 20th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: A Christmas reflection - Who was Jesus Christ?

HUMAN RIGHTS: Looming threat to our religious freedom

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Turnbull heading a frayed and fractured Opposition

NATIONAL SECURITY: Will Australia heed the lessons of Mumbai?

OPINION: Is David Hicks's cheer squad paying attention?

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Unlocking the riddle of the global financial crisis

BANKING: Bendigo Bank preferred over 'Four Pillars'

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Australia challenged by US strategic decline

ASIA: China exports recession to Taiwan

POLITICS: Key principles of democratic statesmanship

OBITUARY: Max Teichmann (1924-2008) - Writer, academic and raconteur fondly remembered

BOOKS: HARD JACKA: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend, by Michael Lawriwsky

BOOKS: EKATERINBURG: The Last Days of the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport

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Looming threat to our religious freedom

by Damian Wyld

News Weekly, December 20, 2008
The ability to practise one's religious faith unhindered by government interference may soon change, a current government inquiry has foreshadowed. Damian Wyld reports.

Readers of News Weekly are probably familiar with the term "creative minority", especially when applied to social change.

One such creative minority is the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), formerly known as HREOC or the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

With taxpayer funding and disproportionate influence, this body has often been at the forefront of "progressive" reforms, most recently pushing for further federal recognition of same-sex relationships - with considerable success.

AHRC's latest endeavour, however, should give even greater cause for concern to family-minded and faith-based readers. A new inquiry, launched in September and entitled Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century, is a glorified rehash of HREOC's 1998 report Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Pre-determined findings?

Given the content of the 1998 report and questions posed by the new 2008 inquiry, readers would have to ask, rather cynically, whether AHRC has not already determined its findings regardless of what submissions it may receive from the public.

The 1998 report calls for, among other things, the enacting of a federal Religious Freedom Act, legislative implementation of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and protection and support for "non-theistic and atheistic beliefs" as well as "minority and non-mainstream religions" (whatever that means).

It also calls for the repeal of state laws against witchcraft, fortune-telling and blasphemy, a federal "inter-faith dialogue" to examine limitations on "coercive tactics" within religious groups (again, whatever that means) and use of ICCPR articles to end religious "discrimination".

This last point would mean that not only would actual discrimination on religious grounds be prohibited (e.g., in employment), but that "incitement to discrimination" would also become an offence. Indeed, "incitement to discrimination" is termed "advocacy of religious hatred", with exemptions apparently granted only to artists, academics and reporters. No mention of clerics, religious organisations or activists...

AHRC's current Freedom of Religion and Belief inquiry has obviously put this agenda back on the table - and not without a few additions.

The inquiry discussion paper also asks a number of questions with regard to gender, sexuality and faith, all of which are loaded. Consider the following examples:

• How is diverse sexuality perceived within faith communities?

• How can faith communities be inclusive of people of diverse sexualities?

• Should religious organisations (including religious schools, hospitals and other service delivery agencies) exclude people from employment because of their sexuality or their sex and gender identity?

Notwithstanding AHRC's apparent regard for institutions "conducted in accordance with the ... teachings of a particular religion or creed", it doesn't take a huge leap of logic to see the above questions leading to a renewed push for Christian schools to accept openly homosexual staff, for Catholics to accept women priests, and so on.

In fact, other questions posed by the AHRC paper seem outright suggestive at times. Consider this gem: "Do religious or faith-based groups have undue influence over government ...?"

If the answer is yes, one wonders what it might mean for organisations like the National Civic Council, which unashamedly sees Judaeo-Christian values as a vital foundation for this country.

To add insult to injury, AHRC has floated the idea of a "Charter of Rights" (which should get a fair hearing with the Rudd Government) and has released the first in a series of eight supplementary discussion papers, entitled How does freedom of religion and belief affect health and well-being?

Subsequent papers will pose questions regarding religion and the arts, law, media, education, "gender equality" and more.

It is important that there be a substantial public response to this inquiry, not because it is likely to affect AHRC's findings, but so that the Rudd Government may clearly understand that the AHRC has no public backing or mandate if and when actual proposals are put to the Commonwealth and state governments.

Likewise, it is important that public submissions avoid sensationalism or shrillness and instead use reasoned arguments as to why the peaceful practice of religion should not be the subject of interference by government or "human rights" bodies.

Unaccountable tribunals

Victoria's religious vilification laws, plus numerous overseas examples of state intrusion into faith, provide ample evidence that bills or charters of rights, or anything even remotely similar, will in fact strip rights steadily away. Handing inordinate power to unaccountable tribunals would be a shocking move and demonstrate just how quickly freedom of religion can become enforced freedom from religion.

Sadly, the ability to practise faith unhindered can no longer be taken for granted.

- Damian Wyld is South Australian state president of the National Civic Council.
For more information, please visit:
The AHRC inquiry will receive public submissions until January 31, 2009.

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