Sunday 25 February 2018
Letter on Religious Freedom
We understand that currently there is an enquiry into religious freedoms being undertaken by an expert panel commissioned by Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. This panel is considering the intersection of the practice of the rights of people from the LGBTQI community and the religious freedoms of many Australians, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and people of many other faiths. We appreciate that the Prime Minister commissioned this panel because of community concerns about the impact of same sex marriage legislation. We know that the report is due on March 31st and that the panel has been hearing submissions from various groups.
We recognize that the Australian people signalled overwhelmingly in the same sex marriage plebiscite that they wanted to redefine the definition of marriage to include same sex couples. Because this plebiscite was done in good faith by your government, we accept this decision, however, we also mourn it, as we believe that marriage in Australia has been systematically weakened over the last few decades and this decision of the Australian people, ratified by the parliament, is just another step in this direction. However, we are not writing to seek to overturn this decision, we have far greater concerns.
Religious freedom is an important aspect of Australian society, and I and many people would argue that without it a society cannot function in a healthy and free manner. This is because religious freedom is about much more than just allowing people to practice their religion as they see fit. Religious freedom is one small part of supporting freedom of conscience, that is the ability for people to live according to the values they believe are important, and the ability to exercise them without fear of persecution and legal harm. Many people lost their lives over the course of western history because our society lacked the wisdom to protect people’s freedom of conscience. But starting in the reformation and culminating in the enlightenment, many men and women made the case for freedom of conscience and for several centuries now we have been living in the fruit of their arguments; a free society. But now we see this freedom being etched away.
Obviously there are limits to how people can follow their conscience, we cannot allow people to harm others physically, or to force their religious or non-religious views on others. However, we are concerned that this is exactly what some lobby groups in our society are seeking to do. There are groups that are seeking to remove exemptions for religious schools from hiring teachers who have lifestyles consistent with their stated beliefs. If these exemptions are removed this will place officials in these schools in danger of prosecution from law and therefore they would be in danger of having their conscience overridden by force and would be compelled to act against it to follow the prescribed orthodoxy of the day. This is in many ways similar to the inquisitions of the past, and we believe this is unacceptable. We have also heard of similar moves from these groups to seek to have exemptions removed from charities and other religious organizations, and we can envision a day when these kinds of law could be turned against churches. In essence we see some radical groups in our society seeking to encroach on religious freedoms as a result of the same sex marriage legislation and enforce their version of orthodoxy. We ask you to stand against this in parliament and defend everybody’s right to freedom of conscience, including those of us who would like to practice our religion without being forced to subscribe to the new sexual orthodoxy of the radical left.
We recognize that in the past our society has gone too far in how it has treated homosexual and transgender people, and we would not like to see extreme law enforcement measures brought against these lifestyles ever again, as this was unjust. However, many of us in religious and even non-religious communities are sensing the pendulum swing in the opposite direction and we ask for you to be vigilant on our behalf in parliament. But this is not just to protect those of us who are religious, we stand beside our non-religious citizens and defend their right for freedom of conscience as well, because Jesus would have us do this. As he said, “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you.”
Specifically for Christian churches we ask that you defend our right to teach what the Bible says about marriage, that it is between a man and a woman, that you defend our right to only practice marriages that are in accordance with this teaching, and that you defend the right of Christians schools, business owners and other Christian organizations to follow their conscience and practice what they believe the Bible is teaching. We also ask that you would do this for people of other faiths and people of non-religious organizations as well. We would not expect a Jewish butcher to be forced to go against his conscience, nor a Muslim congregation either. A strong society protects the rights of its citizens to disagree and still live in harmony.
We thank you for your service in parliament, and pray that you will be able to fulfil your role diligently and faithfully. We recognize that being a member of parliament is a stressful and demanding job and we thank you for being willing to do it.
Reverend Matthew Littlefield