Why I Don’t Believe in Freedom of Religion Laws

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Yes, you read that headline correctly. I don’t believe in Freedom of Religion laws. I think they’re unhelpful and they actually undermine what we’re trying to achieve. However, before you get anxious that I’m somehow giving the game away let me explain…

First, a video. Here’s one of my absolute favourite sequences from The West Wing featuring my favourite character, Ainsley Hayes.

There’s a lot of sense there and I think the same logic applies to the issue of “religious freedom”. Hayes argues that there is no need for a new amendment to the Constitution since all the rights she needs are already provided for in other broader categories.

And so it is with “religious freedom”. It’s really a subset of “freedom”, isn’t it? Specifically it’s a subset of freedom of speech and freedom of association which themselves are expressions of freedom of conscience. If that’s true then we don’t need to argue for a specific “freedom of religion”; if our society really can commit to genuine freedoms for all then religion will be included. My right to express myself should be the same as the marxist living down the street and the Brony at my gym. I think they’re both nuts but their right to be nuts is my right to do what other people think is nuts.

Campbell Markham’s recent piece at The Gospel Coalition (Australia) expresses this in a helpful way, Reflecting on the experience of Protestants in France in the sixteenth century he notes

The moral of the story is crystal clear: once a government presumes to grant religious freedom, the government can take away religious freedom.

If our government grants religious freedom: then natural rights will be transmogrified into state rights. And my prophecy is this: that these state-granted rights—given the anti-Christian mindset and trajectory of our society—will be steadily restricted and repealed. The native forest of religious freedom will be gazetted and fenced, and the chainsaws will begin to buzz.

I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that Christians will be legally restricted in their ability to speak out and live out their faith in the public sphere.

The most recent Freedom for Faith (F4F) video moves more in this direction:

I need to be free, as anyone else is free, to express their identity in their private and their public life.

Now F4F would not subscribe to my approach here but the basic premise is one that we share and to my mind this is an incredibly helpful point for us all to keep stressing. We’re not asking for some special rights – we’re simply asking for properly established general rights that we can benefit from along with everyone else. Like Ainsley Hayes, I think broad rights are sufficient. F4F think they need, for want of a better term (and no pejorative intended), special pleading. I remain a keen supporter of F4F – this is an in-house disagreement.

Of course at this point you might rightly ask “where’s the Bible in all of this?” as well you should. I think what I’m laying out here is consistent with the New Testament’s general approach on these things.

1Tim. 2:1-4 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Paul links prayer for our rulers with the intended outcome that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”. This, in turn, is linked with the fact that God desires all people to be saved. In some way our prayers for good governance are for the benefit of all people. It’s not a knock-down argument but I think the link is there and needs to be noted.

Again in Romans Paul reminds us of our relationship with government:

Rom. 13:1-4 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

I’d make the same argument here. There is a role for our rulers in governing for the benefit of all. More broadly, therefore, the Christian is to take an interest in everyone’s benefit, not just their own.

There’s some political benefit behind this principle too. All too often we Christians are seen as being self-serving, looking to protect our own position. What I’m suggesting here should drive us to argue for general rights for everyone, religious or not. My atheist neighbour benefits just as much as I do if I argue in this way and that is no bad thing.

And that’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe in freedom of religion laws. Like many others I’m sitting and waiting for the Ruddock Report to come out. Let’s see what they have to say. But increasingly I fear that the whole approach may be misguided. Our nation actually needs a far broader discussion about freedom of conscience in general and narrowing it down to religion may benefit us in the short term but I have this growing fear that in the long-run it’s only going to disappoint.

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  1. linda nolan

    David Ould’s August misgivings have proved prescient. One of the “leaked” Ruddock recommendations (there has been no indication that the recommendations themselves are inaccurate) is for Parliament to set up a Religious Discrimination Act. It is assumed that such would fall under the aegis of the Human Rights Commission, alongside the other “Discrimination” Acts – Age, Disability, Race, Sex. All are meant to discourage citizens from discriminating against their fellows in the area & bases indicated. TBC

  2. linda nolan

    In my view a religious discrimination law would be correctly titled only if it were designed, like its sister laws, to discourage discrimination against religious persons or entities. Ruddock was tasked with reporting on whether Australian laws adequately protect the human right to freedom of religion. Clearly, with this recommendation at least, his panel have failed their remit.

    Australia has signed & ratified, but not legislated for, ICCPR Articles 18 & 19 guaranteeing its citizens freedom of religion & freedom of speech, respectively. Now is the time for Parliament to deliver.

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