The Liberal's crazed ‘religious freedom’ law

A protest against Islamophobia in 2017 after a racially-motivated attack on a Muslim student in Sydney.

Could you be described as being “non-faith”? The newly re-elected Coalition government has a law in mind for you.

On May 26, federal Attorney-General Christian Porter announced his intention to rapidly legislate “to protect religious freedoms”. Porter wants to extend the notion of freedom to practise one’s religion from the private to the public sphere. 

This follows years of Liberal Party tub-thumping that Australian Christians are subject to intolerance. The Liberal campaign extends back at least half a decade.

The Liberals’ justifications for this new law have been mutually contradictory, but based on their public statements, one thing is clear: they want to foster bigotry and restrict the freedom of non-religious believers.

They could even be gunning for religious believers outside the Liberal Party’s reactionary, fundamentalist base, such as those defending the rights of refugees.

Remember that John Howard’s Work Choices legislation included a provision allowing bosses to deny their workers the right to organise a union — based on the employer’s religious beliefs!

Howard put that in for his buddies in the Exclusive Brethren, one of Christianity’s more bizarre outgrowths. Howard owed the Brethren politically. They had funded millions of dollars’ worth of anti-Green Party ads — Clive Palmer was not the first to buy favours from the Liberals.

In 2014, then attorney-general George Brandis quite bluntly told the Senate: “People do have a right to be bigots. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

He said that in defence of the right of arch-reactionary commentator, Andrew Bolt, who had run afoul of the Racial Discrimination Act by insulting Aboriginal people. Luckily, Brandis’s attempt to amend the act to allow for Bolt’s bigotry failed.

However, the next year, Brandis told the Human Rights Commission that Australia has “inconsistent attitudes to religious tolerance”. He was unhappy about what he called “non-faith groups” wanting “freedom from religion”.

The worst intolerance that George Brandis could point to in his 2015 speech was that Catholics in particular “are routinely the subject of mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators”.

Porter’s legislation is evidently taking care of Brandis’s targets.

More recently, the Liberals have rushed to the defence of professional footballer Israel Folau’s right to spread his religious-based hostility of the LGBTI community, as well as Catholic Cardinal George Pell after his conviction for child sex charges. 

Folau’s freedom of speech is indeed restricted, but not by religious intolerance. His professional relationship with the Australian Rugby Union, which does not endorse hate-speech, means he is paid to not voice his own opinions on particular matters.

Members of the Catholic Church are not being subjected to any notable social ostracism in Australia. Unlike Muslims, they are not insulted in the streets or slandered by politicians. But the Catholic hierarchy is being very properly called to account for the sexual abuse of children in its institutions.

When the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was first mooted, it was targeted at the Catholic Church. Cardinal George Pell objected, saying that the Catholic Church was not the only “cab at the rank” when it came to abuse.

He was right, but the Catholic Church was the worst. More than 61% of victims who gave testimony were abused in Catholic institutions.

The Catholic Church methodically lied to the Royal Commission about its financial situation. It claimed that paying fair compensation to abuse victims would require cuts to its social programs.

In fact, a Sydney Morning Herald investigation reported that the Church is “worth tens of billions of dollars”. It is “one of the country’s biggest non-government property owners.” The Church enjoys tax-exempt status on all its holdings — hardly a sign of religious oppression!

If, after all this, the Australian Catholic Church finds itself subject to “insult and mockery” then it is getting off lightly. It deserves far more. At the very least, tax exemptions should be lifted from all church assets.

All Australian churches are entitled, under legal exemptions, to hire and fire on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. They can even expel or refuse to enrol students in religious schools because of those attributes.

Those exemptions are obnoxious enough. What does Porter want to add to them with his “religious freedom” law?

Church institutions are gathering enormous wealth, tax free, while Aboriginal people have to struggle to regain access to their stolen land. Paedophile prelates are defended by the most powerful spokespeople in the country unlike Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, who baked to death in a prisoner transport vehicle. Refugees moulder on island gulags while Aussie politicians vie with each other to fan Islamophobia.

Oh yes, there is terrible oppression in Australia but Christian Porter is not aiming to relieve that with his new law. He will be adding to the burden.

[Barry Healy is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]