Balanced view of religious freedom

robyn whitaker

Australian Christians are not persecuted and religious freedom should not be used to justify discrimination against LGBTI people, a Uniting Church minister has said.

Following the national postal vote on same-sex marriage, the federal government established the Ruddock Review to examine whether Australian law adequately protects freedom of religion.

On Sunday, Pilgrim Theological College lecturer Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker discussed religious freedom laws with Julian Burnside and Iain Benson on ABC Radio.

“You only have to look at America during the civil rights debate and South Africa during apartheid where people operating in public spaces, often under the guise of religious beliefs, refused to offer service to those of a different race to themselves,” Dr Whitaker said.

“If you’re a baker or commercial photographer, you’re already working in the public and commercial space. Our laws prevent those people from discriminating in all sorts of ways.

“I don’t think making a cake as a commercial transaction is the same thing as assenting to an entire doctrine of marriage.”

In its submission to the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom, the Uniting Church expressed its opposition to “all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.”

It also argued that the right to practice religion and freedom from discrimination under the law should be carefully balanced.

A number of Christian groups have called for stronger laws to give church-run organisations the right to hire and fire staff based on religious values.

“We’re hearing conservative Christian voices saying there’s enormous pressure and discrimination against them,” Dr Whitaker said.

“But on the balance historically, it has been gay and lesbian people or divorced people who have been discriminated against who have actually lost their jobs and in some cases in Christian groups.

“It’s been Christian allies in the LGBTI community who’ve spoken up on the pulpit or shared their views who have been fired for doing that.

“So I have less sympathy with this idea that it is Christian organisations that need the protection because thus far the cases have actually suggested otherwise.”

Dr Whitaker hopes to see a more respectful and nuanced conversation about rights and responsibilities emerge from the Ruddock Review.

“Freedom works in both directions – it is not just freedom for exemptions for religious groups, it’s also freedom from religion being imposed,” she said.

“We need to think about how we use our freedom with and freedom for good.”



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