In Freedom of Speech, Religious Freedom

Two problems with Scott Morrison’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. First, what does it mean for those who make a stand on conscientious, not religious, grounds? Why should our laws protect religious dissenters but not agnostic dissenters?

Second, does it effectively address the actual threats facing religious people? These are not threats to the freedom to worship but the freedom to speak one’s truth in the public square (not so, Izzy?) or educate one’s children in a faith-based school (not a “Safe School”) whose teachers uphold religious values.

Let me give two personal anecdotes of the overarching threat, whether to religious or irreligious people, which is the threat to free speech. Without free speech we cannot defend our deepest conscientious or religious convictions.

So I ask the question: how would a Religious Discrimination Bill protect the free speech, and therefore free conscience, of traditional-minded people like me who make a stand on conscientious, not religious, grounds?

I once had an outing to the Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland for arguing, in a published newspaper article, that the institution of two-man “marriage” is unjust. My argument was not religious; in essence I said it is wrong to force children to live without their mother, and that is what happens when we establish motherless families as an ideal in our law.

Of course I had nothing to conciliate with the offended activist from Gay Dads NSW and gave no ground to his worthless complaint of “vilifying the homosexual community”.

The complaint was withdrawn un-conditionally, but not until the process had cost me time and money—and that is the whole point: “the process is the punishment”. The anti-discrimination apparatus intimidates free speech.

More recently another LGBT Twitter warrior had me investigated, absurdly, by the Medical Board of Australia. This valuable body exists to protect the public from unregistered or incompetent medicos. No longer content to stick to its knitting, it now seeks to spin a sticky ideological web to entrap doctors, even in their private lives, who exhibit insufficiently PC opinions.

My alleged offence was that I forwarded, without comment, a tweet by leading columnist Miranda Devine and a tweet by Senate candidate Lyle Shelton. Devine had criticised the teaching of gender fluidity in Queensland schools, and my mate Lyle Shelton had promoted a scholarly book critical of gender theory by another comrade of mine, Ryan Anderson. That was my heinous crime, comparable only to Izzy Folau’s sackable offence of forwarding a tweet by St. Paul.

Once again, I had nothing to conciliate and respectfully objected to the Board policing the private political communications of a free citizen. Once again, the activist went away empty-handed, save for the pleasure of watching a government agency do his bidding to harass a total stranger. And here again, a Religious Discrimination Bill that does not also cover conscientious objectors would have been useless in protecting me from such harassment, since my objection to the weird notion of gender fluidity is not a religious objection.

It appears the only effective way to protect free speech and conscientious and religious liberty in an age of vexatious offence-taking is to defang the ravening Boards and Commissions that prowl the boundaries of acceptable beliefs.

How strange, then, to have the prowler-in-chief, head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, present on the Ruddock Review of Religious Freedom.

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM was courteous when I spoke with the committee, even though I had been blunt in the submission she had before her: “The Australian Human Rights Commission has no mandate to act as the national arbiter of acceptable opinion. For Australian law to adequately protect freedom of conscience and religion, the Human Rights apparatus will have to be relieved of its power to intimidate citizens who express conscientious convictions that are well-founded but out of step with the spirit of the age.”

One thinks of the late great cartoonist, Bill Leak, whose conscience-pricking depiction of the plight of Aboriginal children resulted in relentless and despicable intimidation by our Human Rights Commission.

I also said to the Ruddock committee that their inquiry marks a watershed moment. We can either reaffirm the primacy of the individual conscience, an unusual idea that arose from the unprecedented importance of the individual soul in Christian culture, or we can give primacy to the “group conscience” of identity politics and sink slowly back into the collectivism characteristic of human history.

The greatest affirmation of the individual against the collective comes in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which opens thus: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Note that the epitome of human dignity is “reason and conscience”, not yet religion. That comes later in Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. This threefold freedom is at the heart of human rights, because it is at the heart of human life. These are the freedoms that, throughout history, men and women would die for. A focus on merely “religious” freedom will not do justice to human dignity.

And so it was a pleasure to see that the Ruddock Review’s final report opens with the words: “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a right enjoyed by all, not just those of faith.” Faced with that opening statement, MPs will need to broaden the proposed legislation beyond a Religious Discrimination Bill and address freedom of conscience—which means freedom to speak one’s mind—for all of us.

Yeah right-o—what’s its name, then? It needs to be a Conscientious and Religious Discrimination Bill. And it needs the power to clip the wings of those censorious “Human Rights” commissions that would intimidate quiet Australians from thinking freely, speaking freely and living as religiously or irreligiously as they like, according to conscience.

David van Gend is a Queensland doctor and president of the Australian Marriage Forum. This article has been republished from the Spectator Australia with permission.

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