Bill Muehlenberg

Freedom From Religion

American President Ronald Reagan once famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” That is certainly true in the area of religion. Whenever the government starts sticking its nose in religious affairs, it generally ends up causing trouble – and lots of it.

The current government inquiry into freedom of religion is a good case in point. The inquiry being conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC – formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) actually has been around a while. An earlier inquiry took place in the late 1990s. HREOC released a report in 1998 called “Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief” which made a number of recommendations.

The conservative years of the Howard Government saw the report languish, but with a new Labor government, the Commission has been reinvigorated to keep pushing its agenda. And although its current working document, “Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century” may appear somewhat benign, it is potentially a very real threat to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

It may seem like a tame document, but a careful reading of it reveals a number of genuine concerns. Indeed, the real agenda behind this seems to be to convince people that unbridled religion can be a dangerous thing, and that we need either a Bill of Rights to keep it in check, or more quasi-religious bodies (staffed by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, all funded by us taxpayers) to oversee things. The implication seems to be that religions in Australia are getting away with murder, and they must be severely curtailed.

Thus various exemptions now given to churches and religious bodies may be removed, and religious beliefs and practices may have to be coerced into conformity with modern secular humanism and amorality. Consider for example section “5: The interface of religious, political and cultural aspirations”. It asks, “Do you believe that there is equality of gender in faith communities?”

Along with it we have section “7:  Religion, cultural expression and human rights” which asks questions like these: “How is diverse sexuality perceived within faith communities?” “How can faith communities be inclusive of people of diverse sexualities?” “Should religious organisations (including religious schools, hospitals and other service delivery agencies) exclude people from employment because of their sexuality or their sex and gender identity?”

These sneaky questions harbour a host of nasty implications. What about those Christian denominations, for example that do not believe in the ordination of women pastors or leaders? Will they be forced to reverse their policies, because they would otherwise be discriminating and not promoting government notions of equality?

Of course real alarm bells over questions like these should be sounding: indeed, we know they all have to do with the promotion of minority agendas, especially homosexuality. Whenever we hear bureaucrats talk about gender in the same sentence as diversity, equality, orientation, discrimination and the like, we know what is intended. The main push of our government social engineers is to get everyone to embrace the homosexual agenda.

Is your church speaking out against homosexuality, as the Bible so clearly does? Do you prevent homosexuals from being pastors in your denomination? Do you insist that Christian schools should not have to hire homosexual teachers?

All of that could be challenged. Indeed, it already is being challenged, and will be even more so if a federal Bill of Rights goes through, and inquires like this are used as an excuse to stamp out “inequality” by force if need be.

Or consider the issue of church and state relationships, or separation of church and state. The inquiry asks if people have any concerns about this. Of course the secularists are greatly concerned. They don’t want any public religious influence whatsoever. But these concepts are greatly confused.

While separation of church and state – rightly understood – can and should be promoted, there is no – and can be no – separation of religion and politics, or religion and the public arena. That is because religion is about worldviews, about the way people look at the world. Everyone has a worldview; therefore everyone is religious. Even the secularist and atheist have a worldview, and are thus religious. To argue that religion should have nothing to do with public life is to argue that no one should have anything to do with public life. This is simply impossible and nonsensical.

Everyone brings his or her beliefs and values to the public arena. When someone says murder should be illegal, that is bringing a worldview belief to the public arena. If someone writes an article or comment on a public website and seeks to argue that religion should have no place in public discussion, he is simply bringing his secularist worldview to the public arena.

And our Constitution, like the American Constitution, already deals with church and state issues. Both argue, not against the influence of religion on public life, but against the Government preferring one religion above another, or making one denomination the official religion.

Indeed, section 116 of the Commonwealth of Australian Constitution Act says this: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

So this matter is already covered, and we do not need any more laws on the books, or any more meddling government bodies, thought police, and so on, moving in this direction. Leave things be already.

The discussion paper also moots a federal Religious Freedom Act. This may sound good, but a closer look suggests otherwise. The language makes it clear that perhaps generic, non-evangelical religions might benefit by something like this. But religions – especially biblical Christianity – which emphasise public truth claims and the importance of evangelism, will likely fare rather poorly here. For example, in the list of features in the proposed Act, nothing at all is said about the right of proclamation, of preaching, of conversion, of public declaration.

Given how our current religious vilification laws are being used to stifle and prevent these very things, one can imagine that a federal law like this will simply make matters much worse in this regard. We already have far too much government interference in religious freedom. This bit of bureaucratic foolishness will simply make the free expression of religion that much more difficult.

Much more can be said about the shortcomings of this Inquiry and the discussion paper. Others are concerned as well. Angela Shanahan, writing in the January 24-25 Weekend Australian also listed her many concerns about the venture. She asks why we even need such an inquiry. Are things so bad on the religious front that we need this tax-payer funded hullabaloo?

“Most Australians seem to be getting along pretty well in freedom of religion – or from religion – with a variety of beliefs that span the spectrum from deep and meaningful, full of tradition and philosophy and demanding practice, to Mystic Medusa. Everything would seem quite satisfactory in the religious freedom department, although a lot of us might think that religion itself could fare better. We live in a country where anyone can believe anything and can publicly demonstrate it: from having World Youth Day and wearing crosses, or a yarmulke or even a black veil and gauze over your eyes, unlike the citizens of the great proto-revolutionary French republic. Of course we don’t need this inquiry, so why we are having it?”

She also speaks to the church-state issue: “Here is a sample of those questions with my responses. Q. Is this section of the Constitution an adequate protection of freedom of religion and belief? A. Absolutely. It has worked well for more than 100 years. Q. How should the Australian Government protect freedom of religion and belief? A. By acting in accord with Section 116 of the constitution and not fraudulently extending its reach into relations between religions or their internal matters. And this beauty: Q. When considering the separation of religion and state, are there any issues that presently concern you? A. I am concerned by attempts by bodies such as the HRC to insert themselves into the religious sphere in violation of the clear intent of Section 116 of the Constitution.”

“So it goes until we get to the clincher: Q. Would a legislated national charter of rights add to these freedoms of religion and belief? A. No. It would be an unwarranted and dangerous interference into our liberties. So basically this new foray by our human rights watchdogs is designed not to protect religious freedom but to provide some phony evidence that we need a charter of rights that could just as easily have the effect of restraining and limiting our present religious freedom. Of course the one area where people really are worried about the implications of freedom of religion is Islamic fundamentalism and its links to terrorism. But threats to security have nothing to do with the HRC, rather they are already handled by the security services.”

Biblical Christianity is certainly not a threat in Australia. But other religions may well be: “Naturally the commission pretends it is ideologically even-handed. It asks: What are areas of concern regarding the freedom to practise and express faith and beliefs, within your faith community and other such communities? My "conservative" answer, and I suspect that of most of my neighbours, would be: The threat of violence by some of the Islamic community against freedom of expression in the media for critics of Islam, or against comment perceived to be critical of Islam. Also the efforts of militant non-believers to exclude religion from the public square. Of course we don’t need an inquiry into freedom of religion to know this. We might need an inquiry into Islamic fundamentalists.”

And like so many of these government inquiries, most Australians will not even know about it, or care about it enough to put in a submission. But we know that all the usual suspects – the secularists, the homosexual activists, etc – will be putting in plenty of submissions. But hopefully a few folk interested in religious freedom will also get involved:

“The submissions to this inquiry are not a properly conducted survey. The inquiry is open to any interested member of the public, so you can bet that the majority of Australians, either those quite contented with our religious freedom or those not interested one way or the other because they are not religious, won’t bother to respond. No, only two classes of people will respond to this phony inquiry: those whose idea of religious freedom is no religion, who want no public religious expression and want to keep its values as far from the debate of the public square as possible, and another group that sees the potential danger, although like me they will probably get fed up halfway through answering the loaded, trivial questions.”

Yes, it is important for concerned Australian to once again get involved in this process. They seem to occur every other month, and so often in the past the majority of submissions which express concern over some issue or proposal are simply ignored anyway.

These inquiries, in other words, are often a foregone conclusion. The government bureaucrats and activist groups know what they want, and they put on the facade of holding fair and impartial inquiries, knowing full well they will get their predetermined outcomes anyway.

But we must nonetheless go through the motions, and hope that some sanity prevails. So I encourage all those concerned about this freedom of religion (really, freedom from religion) discussion to get involved and put in a submission, no matter how brief. The deadline in January 31 (notice how they invariably hold these inquiries over major holiday periods, when most people are either away or otherwise engaged, thereby resulting in just what they want: only the activist groups getting their submissions in, while the general public misses the boat altogether).

The website with all the details is here:  Please get involved.,25197,24953801-7583,00.html

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