To hear some of my co-religionists on the matter, you would think that same-sex marriage is the greatest threat to religious liberty in this country. I am opposed to a change in the Marriage Act, but Labor’s antics have only helped a niche group within Labor. Unlike Lyle Shelton, I won’t be sending Bill Shorten a ‘thank you’ card. Rather I say: bring on a plebiscite, if for no other reason than so that we can stop talking about it and, whatever the outcome, focus on even more ominous threats to religious liberty.
Here are three – in increasing order of gravity – political naïveté, elitist contempt, and government regulation.
Throughout the present debate us religious folks have been constantly assured that the right to religious freedom is important. Christian clergy being forced to conduct same-sex marriages? ‘Perish the thought!’ says the Attorney-General in unison with pretty much everyone. Even the human rights mandarins who usually cannot resist lecturing and hectoring those whose definition of marriage is more like Penny Wong 2010 than Penny Wong 2016 pretend that, should the law change, religious exemptions are a sine qua non.
If the definition changes, they should be; although I’m rather disinclined to trust most of those saying so. Some of them, for example, can’t even imagine a scenario in which a change in the Marriage Act will have any bearing whatsoever on religious freedom, despite a preponderance of overseas evidence. At a recent religious liberty conference, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC denied any link. When asked about a high-profile Canadian case in which law graduates of a Christian university are denied admission to the Bar because of its policy on marriage, he claimed to have never heard of it. If religious freedom was as sacrosanct as Mr Dreyfus, et al claim, the nation’s alternative A-G might have actually read up on some case law in that direction.
I say this is political naïveté and give Dreyfus the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t strike me as the most dishonest Labor MP. But perhaps it’s me who is naïve and this is actually a case of elitist contempt for religions and traditions in general, and Christianity and conservatism specifically. Or rather, for Christians and conservatives specifically. Hillary Clinton recently described ‘half of Trump’s supporters’ as a ‘basket of deplorables… racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it!’ The US Commission on Civil Rights’ Chairman Martin Castro put it like this: ‘The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.’
Australia’s own sordid Human Rights Commission – together with its state and territory anti-discrimination franchises – likewise fixate on every -ist, -ic, and -ism, opining on and meddling in newspaper cartoons, small businesses, clubs and associations, and even, as in the ludicrous case of Tasmanian Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous, religious doctrine. Commissioners regularly moonlight as talking heads on panel TV shows, and one in particular touts for business on social media.
Spectacles such as this have become the usual modus operandi among the Left, underpinned by two governing principles. Firstly, that those with whom you disagree are to be insulted and mocked. Recall the pompous Biblical expositions of Messrs Rudd and Shorten to Christians as to how their Bible works. Or Obama’s arrogant derision of Pennsylvania steelworkers who ‘get bitter and cling to religion as a way to explain their frustrations’ about the economy. And secondly, that strongly held beliefs, including religious ones must be changed. Speaking about abortion rights, Clinton recently said as much: ‘deep seated religious beliefs have to be changed.’
The top finding of the Commission on Civil Rights’ report, ironically entitled Peaceful Coexistence, is that ‘Civil rights protections ensuring non-discrimination, as embodied in the Constitution, laws, and policies, are of pre-eminent importance in American jurisprudence’. Dissenting Commissioner, law professor Gail Heriot asks the rhetorical question: who says they are pre-eminent? The answer, of course: ‘The Commission said so.’ Elitist contempt is personified in Martin Castro as it is locally in Tim Soutphommasane.
But Heriot also notes that, apart from the personal hubris of these privileged elites, there is a structural problem as well: ‘The bigger and more complex government becomes, the more conflicts between religious conscience and the duty to comply with the law we can expect.’ Much of the religious liberty fight, both in the US and here, is about religious exemptions to broad anti-discrimination provisions. But when the government didn’t so heavily regulate everyday life, ‘we didn’t need to worry nearly so much about the ways in which conflicts with religious conscience and the law arise’.
The same could be said for marriage, if the government would only stop regulating it altogether (as I have been writing in these pages since 2013!), but that won’t happen. And so, instead, we talk about exemptions for clergy and churches. But why on earth should any small business be compelled to offer a service to someone they don’t want to offer it to? The Greens want to abolish employment discrimination exemptions in religious schools, but how is it fair or sensible to force an employment relationship upon any not-for-profit, especially one that would compromise its raison d’être? Or as Heriot points out, again in an American context, back in the day ‘the Roman Catholic Church didn’t need the so-called Ministerial Exception to Title VII [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act] in order to limit ordinations to men (and to Roman Catholics), because there was no Title VII’! Indeed.
Religious exemptions sound attractive to religious people, but they should worry us. They allow burgeoning bureaucracies to divide and conquer, and make us useful idiots in perverse identity politics – yet another protected minority, or worse, a special interest group to be pandered to before the next round of regulatory measures.
Rather than fighting for exemptions (as attractive as they sound when you have a fatalistic approach to increasing government regulation), we must be fighting against the broad increase in state power, and defending the institutions of civil society which push against it. Unless we do so, religious freedom could well become the last liberty standing, but it won’t stand alone for very long.
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