The Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and related legislation which is now before the Federal Parliament, is much-needed and long-awaited. While not perfect, it has many good aspects which Christians—as well as those of other faiths and all Australians—ought to welcome.
First, it fills a huge gap in Australian legislation. Did you know that here in Sydney where I’m writing you could put a sign up outside a restaurant saying “we don’t serve Hindus” and you’d actually not be breaking the law? That’s the current situation both in New South Wales and South Australia and obviously needs to be rectified. The bill standardises a national approach where states’ laws vary greatly. Not only that, but it gives us legislative implementation of Article 18 of the UN Human Rights Charter which has been in place since 1948 but will only now gets recognition in Australian law:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
(UNHRC Article 18)
That last clause is important because religious belief involves all-of-life observance. We’re Christians both on Sunday morning and when we walk out of the church doors. A mature democracy will not only recognise but protect the right to manifest religion seven days a week.
Second, the bill clarifies the law in a number of areas where there’s been uncertainty about what people can and cannot say in public. Current laws vary from state to state and we’ve seen pretty punitive actions taken by some using current laws in some jurisdictions.
The Porteous case is a striking example. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania Julian Porteus issued a pastoral letter, “Don‘t Mess With Marriage,” during the same-sex marriage debate of 2015 which not only set out orthodox Christian belief on human sexuality but also argued that same-sex marriage was not good for children in those marriages (a contested position but one that is more than amply demonstrated by a number of research papers).
Porteus was targeted by activists who were not even the intended recipients of the letter, yet they nevertheless complained that they were “humiliated” and “offended”. Under Tasmanian Law this meant that the Archbishop entered an Anti-Discrimination process. The complainant eventually dropped the complaint, despite originally claiming that the letter “caused immeasurable harm,” without having to reimburse any of Porteus’ numerous expenses.
This is just one example of why clarity in the law is required. Numerous other cases can be read about at Australia Watch. The new bill will deal with these disparities of approach and provide protection for those who simply want to manifest their religion.
Third, the bill actually brings our laws into line with what most people think they should be. According to the latest research published by the respected McCrindle, “Australia’s Changing Spiritual Landscape,” 29% of Australians say they have been discriminated against because of their religion or religious views and 80% are in support of passing legislation to protect against religious discrimination. There is a real problem out there, as we’ve already seen above, and a real desire to do something about it.
And, perhaps most fundamentally of all, this bill marks us out as a mature democracy where we understand the difference between discrimination and disagreement and genuinely recognise that everyone gets a fair go—including the freedom to express and manifest our (often very deeply held) religious beliefs without fear of being discriminated against. Legislation is important, not only because of the laws themselves, but also because of the values that they communicate. That was, of course, exactly the argument made around same-sex marriage: changing the law sent a clear signal about Australia’s valuing of such relationships. Well the same is true now. A well-drafted religious discrimination bill sends a very clear message that Australia is a nation of adults who can cope when others disagree with and even strongly criticise them. Again, the McCrindle research tells us that most Australians think in exactly this way:
90% of Australians believe that in Australia, people should have the freedom to share their religious beliefs, if done in a peaceful way, even if those beliefs are different to mainstream community views.
This, ultimately, is going to be where the main point of contention comes: the right of Christians and others to live out our religion; to speak of it to others; to freely organise ourselves into associations such as schools that uphold our own ethics—even if the wider Australian society takes strong issue with us on fundamental aspects of that belief.
Most of all, of course, wider Australian society (or perhaps the loudest voices within it) has several shibboleths that it cannot tolerate being criticised, the greatest of which is a fluid view of sexuality and gender. This has already become the battleground issue for debate around the new bill, with articles about gay teachers being “fired” from Christian schools etc.
But this is precisely why we ought to welcome the new bill. We could evangelise without it (and we certainly have been) but it does protect and reinforce something very important and, indeed, life-giving for our nation.
One of Jesus’ very first recorded words in the Scriptures is “repent!” (Mark 1:15). He walked into his own nation and told them that their lives needed to change. The call to repent is the natural and necessary precursor to the announcement of the gospel. Jesus’ call is to a wonderful new life in his kingdom, but it is also a clear challenge to the life we may be currently living.
This challenge offended people then and it still offends people today. A law which allows us to offend people in this way is therefore a law which is good for Australia; it is good for a healthy intellectual life in general (and western culture is sorely lacking in healthy intellectual discussion). It sends a signal that profound disagreement is not only allowable but good and that’s a society in which Jesus’ radical challenge to “repent!” may even gain a fresh ear.