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Do we really need religious freedom legislation?

I don’t believe we do. Many of the Ruddock committee recommendations can be achieved by amendments to existing anti-discrimination law, without needing stand-alone religious freedom legislation.

People of faith, and Christians in particular, need not rush into believing that we need legislative authority to ensure our freedom to practise our faith. We have lived for a long time in Australia without such legislation, and managed times of tension without the intervention of government. Indeed, these times of tension – it might be argued – have been managed well precisely because government has not been involved.

One example of a dispute about the freedom to express religion is found in the correspondence between the Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Melbourne in the early 1930s, Anglican Archbishop Frederick Head and Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

The reason for the conflict might puzzle us now, but was essentially about the freedom to exercise religious practices in public. Earlier there had been correspondence from Head seeking to discourage the use of special trains on a Sunday in connection with a local Eucharistic festival held at Rupertswood, Sunbury. His concerns came to a sharper focus in anticipation of the 1934 Eucharist Congress and especially concerned the proposed procession of the eucharistic elements throughout the streets of Melbourne.

Head took a line plainly informed by Article 28 of the Anglican Church’s founding 39 Articles of Religion, which instructs that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, from the time of Christ’s institution of it, is not to be carried about, lifted up or worshipped. In that vein, Head wrote to Mannix appealing to him to stop the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the grounds that it would offend Protestant sensibilities.

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Mannix was not persuaded, and the events went ahead as planned. The point is that had this matter escalated to a government adjudicator, however described, it is likely to have further inflamed the issue and made it even more divisive.

This is the danger of legislation. Had something that today would cause no concern been the basis of government intervention at that time, our contemporary freedoms may well have been severely altered over the intervening 80 years by any number of administrative and judicial decisions. The intrusion of government into the field of religious freedom has many risks that persuade me that we are far better off to pursue legislative amendment to existing anti-discrimination legislation.

The right project, in my mind, is to work towards a Charter or Bill of Rights rather than the current piecemeal approach to anti-discrimination. Christianity has always thrived in the robust debate of competing beliefs and religious claims.

A Bill of Rights provides a context in which freedoms are defined and balanced, not privileging one particular group over another. It is the safest and most comprehensive approach to secure freedom of conscience, of which religious freedom is a part.

Although any change to state or federal anti-discriminations laws necessarily involves government action, the less governments are involved the better it will be. And the proposed freedom of religion bill is perhaps the most divisive outcome of all.

Dr Philip Freier is Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne.

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