What is religious freedom?

Article by Chelsea Pietsch.

Chelsea explores what religious freedom – a term commonly used but often misunderstood – actually entails.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right recognised by international human rights documents, and one which is integral to our human dignity. It enables people to live in accordance with deeply held views about what it means to be human. The right is safe-guarded by placing certain limits on government with regard to interference in the public and private exercise of religious freedom, and by ensuring that the government does not privilege one belief system over another.

The best articulation of religious freedom is, arguably, found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 18 reads:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individual or in community with other and in public or private to manifest his religion or believe in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents, and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Article 18 communicates the fact that freedom of religion is not just about respecting an individual’s right to hold private beliefs behind closed doors, but also to live out those beliefs in the public square. It also recognises that religious freedom extends beyond the individual and involves the protection of religious communities ie the right for believers to congregate in order to live out their shared beliefs together. This communal aspect of religious freedom is commonly misunderstood due to the influences of individualism in our western culture. However, it is inherently connected with freedom of association and the rights of cultural and religious minorities.[i]

Article 18(3) also provides helpful guidance on what constitutes an appropriate limitation on freedom of religion. Freedom of religion can only be limited in very restricted circumstances, namely where its expression threatens public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Any limitation on religious freedom must be strictly necessary, and therefore justified only in very serious cases.

Despite international legal recognition of religious freedom, the reality is that threats to religious freedom are becoming more frequent across the world, including Western democracies. Christians in particular face an increasingly hostile environment, which arises from a particular view of secularisation that involves a strong rejection of Christian morality.

The most obvious threat in Australia concerns changes to anti-discrimination laws across the country. There is an active constituency arguing to reduce or eliminate ‘religious exceptions’ to otherwise generally applicable anti-discrimination laws. These exceptions (sometimes called exemptions) are important to safeguard legitimate expressions of religious freedom. However, this constituency seemingly has little understanding of, or respect for, the rights of religious communities to maintain their identity.

For example, the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act, which was passed in the final days of the Labor government, was amended to remove exemptions for Commonwealth aged-care providers. As a result of this, it is no longer lawful for a Commonwealth-funded religious aged-care facility to preference a married couple over an unmarried couple – whether heterosexual or homosexual.

Of course the government has a duty to ensure that all people, irrespective of their sexuality, have access to aged-care facilities. The problem is that the previous government sought to achieve this end by prohibiting people who share in one faith, and share similar expressions of that faith, from choosing to live together in their old age. This was followed almost immediately by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, which seeks to prevent private educational institutions from being able to discriminate against its students on the basis of attributes relating to their sexuality or relationship status.

However, such a proposal fails to recognise that many private educational institutions are religious communities established with the object of professing, practicing and reaching a particular religious faith. This involves much more than including prayers at school or college assemblies, or mentioning God in the curriculum. Religious educational institutions are interested in the formation of the whole person, and often seek to establish a community that upholds the full teaching of the faith, including teachings on sex and sexuality.

Many religions, including orthodox Christian denominations, teach that sex is the celebration of a union between a man and a woman who have given themselves exclusively to one another in marriage. In fact almost every major Australian Christian denomination has a doctrinal statement to this effect.

As a result of this, Christian educational institutions may expect their students to uphold particular standards in relation to sexual practice. This applies to heterosexual as much as to homosexual practices. It I not about being “anti-gay” or “anti-anything”, rather it is about proposing a way of life, and seeking to establish a community that upholds this way of life.

However, threats to religious freedom don’t just stem from anti-discrimination measures. Limitations are also imposed by legislation that limits freedom of conscience and speech, both of which go hand in hand with religious freedom.

For example, the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Act (2008) requires medical practitioners who have a conscientious objection to abortion to provide a referral to another health professional who does not have such an objection. Tasmania has recently passed legislation with similar provisions.

There are also laws such as the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (2001) which, among other things, prohibits ‘conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for or revulsion of [an]other person or class of persons’.[ii]  While the intention of this legislation is praiseworthy, its subjective nature has already had the undesirable effect of stifling reasonable public discussion on the topic of religion.

The right to religious freedom is an essential component of a free and tolerant society. It goes hand-in-hand with freedom of conscience, speech and association, which serve as the means by which people can consider, discuss and debate important questions about human existence and morality.

Chelsea Pietsch is the Executive Officer of a non-denominational religious freedom organisation called Freedom 4 Faith freedom4faith.org.au

This article was first published in the June 2014 glossy edition of RISE magazine. See back issues here.

[i] See Article 22 and 27 of the ICCPR.

[ii] austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/consol_act/rarta2001265/s8/html

Author: Rise Magazine

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