Religious freedom & legal “tweaks” – why we must be ready to campaign again

The silence surrounding the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom has been briefly broken.

While many await the Attorney-General’s response to the inquiry’s report, Ruddock panel member Father Frank Brennan has spoken at a human rights conference in Melbourne.

His remarks will do little to reassure those who voted “No” in last year’s marriage debate, suggesting changes to the law are required, but only in the form of “tweaking”.

Brennan’s thinking appears riddled with contradiction. For example, he advocates adding religion as a protected attribute under state-based anti-discrimination law, but then delves into further concessions that must be made by churches.

Father Frank Brennan (L) and religious freedom chair Philip Ruddock
Father Frank Brennan (L) and religious freedom chair Philip Ruddock.

He questions the right of faith-based schools to “discriminate” against LGBT staff and students if “it can be demonstrated that the adherents of the particular religion or creed voted overwhelmingly in support of same-sex marriage”.

Even were such proof possible (as, for starters, surely being an “adherent” requires more than ticking a box on the census form) one would expect the Catholic Fr Brennan to appreciate that Church teaching is not decided by opinion polls.

Brennan also stated that religious groups are “entitled to conduct their institutions consistent with church teaching but not in a manner which discriminates adversely against those of a different sexual orientation”.

In other words, religious freedom is very much a second-class right. Someone’s sexual orientation can trump it in an instant. Don’t worry about irrelevant human rights instruments like the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Or the Siracusa Principles, which state that: “No state party shall, even in time of emergency threatening the life of the nation, derogate from the Covenant’s guarantees of… freedom of thought, conscience and religion. These rights are not derogable under any conditions even for the asserted purpose of preserving the life of the nation.”

Fr Brennan’s comments come as a disappointment, but are hardly surprising.

Indeed, in February 2018 the ‘Expert Panel’ chaired by Phillip Ruddock met with the main “No” (to changing marriage) delegation, which included Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher, Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies, the AFC’s Damian Wyld (representing Marriage Alliance) and others.

‘Expert Panel’ member Fr Brennan was absent. Again, disappointing but not surprising.

The big question is: can anything of the Ruddock report (currently under wraps) be determined from Brennan’s comments? Hard to say, but we will know soon enough, when the Federal Government releases it response.

But regardless of whether the Ruddock report is strong or weak – and likewise the Government response – we know for a fact that any gain we may possibly secure will be hard-won.

Many from last year’s “Yes” camp, under the guise of maintaining and advancing their own stated “human rights”, will fight hammer and tongs against any attempt to preserve freedom of religion and belief.

They make no secret of this. The “Equality Campaign” submission to the Ruddock review even called for parental rights over what children are taught in schools to be further watered down.

The silence surrounding the report will soon be broken in a much more substantial way – and we must be ready to campaign once again.