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Religious freedom or hate speech?

By L.K.

When does religious freedom of expression go too far?

We live in a society where religion is becoming a common tool to excuse hate speech. Religion has become a shield in which many of Australians cling too.

Israel Folau’s case has made headlines across Australia in the recent weeks and has sparked a widely controversial debate of what exactly can and cannot be said in the name of religion. This debate in Australia has been a long and contentious debate for years.

However, as this debate heats up and has no intention of cooling down, we must ask ourselves several questions:

What is religious freedom of expression?

Why are Australians having this debate, if we already have protections in place?

And how do we prevent religious freedom from turning into hate speech?

Image by SimonEast. Photo of the Australia Act 1986 document, as located at Parliament House, Canberra

Religious freedom is defined as the right to choose what religion to follow and to worship without interference. In Australia, religious freedom is protected under section 116 of the Australian Constitution which states that the Australian government is prohibited from establishing any religion, imposing any religious observation, prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, requiring a religious test as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

These protections whilst upheld in our constitution are not mandated to be upheld on state level which is where a lot of the discussion and anger generates from.

This debate first started heating up when Australia was repealing same-sex marriage laws which prohibited any legal marriage but that between a man and a woman. Religious leaders strongly and publicly advocated for the “no” side, arguing that their version of what marriage means should remain the only truth. Furthermore, they believe that they should be able to freely express their discrimination based on sexuality, gender and race – even if these ‘expressions’ are based on hatred and excluding speech.

However, society is much more diverse than what some religious leaders can bear. Australians in their majority voted yes to protect any kind of love.

Back to Folau’s case: Rugby Australia has embraced these views, and aims to promote a game to all Australians, regardless their ethnic and religious background, or their love and gender choices. when Israel Folau was fired from Rugby Australia after posting on his social media that “hell waits for all drunks, homosexuals and adulterers,” these same religious leaders and organisations came back to play the victim. How dare someone be fired for being homophobic?

The cries started across the nation with many claiming that Folau had been fired due to him expressing his religious views and what had happened to Australia’s freedom of speech, they questioned. They conveniently forgot that when Folau had signed his contract he had agreed to follow Rugby Australia’s policy of inclusivity to all.

If one looks closely at the proposed religious freedom debate one will notice that the only voices in the whole debate are Christians. No other religions are mentioned. It’s time to start calling what the religious freedom debate is: A means to ensure hate speech is not only allowed but protected.

There is a bill which will be introduced to parliament sometime this year, is centred around the twenty recommendations that the Ruddock review proposed after examining Australia’s existing laws. This includes continuing to implement section 38 of the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which allows religious educational institutions to discriminate against employees and students based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy”.

The Ruddock review recommended that these provisions specifically be re-evaluated not with the aim of getting rid of them but the fact that “the discrimination is founded in the precepts of the religion” is made clearer and institutions make their policy on this matter publicly available. Which of course would make discrimination alright and acceptable.

The recommendations continued to emphasise that the main goal is to protect religious individuals from being subject to discrimination from employers, society and institutions. Its aim whilst on the surface being a just cause will trigger many intended consequences and drive Australians even further apart.

It will allow individuals like Israel Folau to say homophobic comments and get away with it. It will allow employers to only employ individuals of the same religion. Employers will become increasingly concerned as to hire religious employees as the fear of these employees playing the “religion card.” This bill will allow for hate speech to be protected.

Ones right to religion does not mean that one should have the right to express hate towards others. Unfortunately, our Australian leaders do not seem to have realised this yet. This is seen in our current laws.

There is a way to protect both freedom of religion and to protect minorities from being the subject to unfair and cruel hate speech: Australia needs to have a Bill for Human rights that states the freedoms ALL Australians are entitled to have, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion. With a document such as this overlaps and loopholes could not be used to spout hatred or discriminate against anyone.

Photo by T. Chick McClure on Unsplash

Australia it is time to stop preaching about religious freedom and do something about hate speech instead. There is a fine line between both, and unfortunately, we have crossed it. Our laws need to change, and we must ensure that new laws are not put into place to cement hatred and prejudice even more into our nation.

Our prime minister once said that “You love all Australians if you love Australia.” Well now more than ever it is his time to ensure that all the Australians that he loves are not subject to discrimination.

* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.


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