Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 July 2019


Freedom of Religion

8:41 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to speak on the important issue of religious freedom. I recently launched a petition calling for a religious freedom act. Enshrined in this act should be the right to the freedom of speech, thought, conscience and religion. I would like to thank people from across Australia who have called my office, who supported my incentive and who are actively engaged in getting signatures.

This is an issue primarily of freedom of speech, of which religious freedom is a component. This debate in Australia has its genesis in the same-sex marriage postal survey conducted in 2017. I and others warned that religious freedom issues needed to be considered at that time, due to the significant and complicated legal consequences of same-sex marriage. These warnings were ignored, and now we are attempting to unscramble the egg. I encourage all who believe in freedom of speech to continue to sign and mail the petition to my electoral office as soon as possible.

A federal religious freedom act would ensure consistency and applicability across all arms of government in Australia. When freedom of speech, thought, conscience and belief is framed only as an exemption to other rights, they are read down against positive rights, rendering them subordinate to those other rights. A regime of positive rights in the form of religious freedom legislation would give effect to the right to manifest one's freedom of thought, conscience and belief, as outlined in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Can I take this opportunity to thank people of faith across Australia as well as those who have no faith but believe in freedom for supporting my initiative. I thank Dr Norman Lee and many of the people who work with him, who have also assisted me and continue to assist me in this endeavour; thank you for your commitment.

As I speak with religious leaders and their organisations, they are calling for robust positive protections enshrined in law, not merely as grudging exemptions. They want a positive right that allows people to live in accordance with their convictions. And while religious leaders may have theological differences, there is strong solidarity amongst them, unified in their fight to protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The need for positive religious freedom legislation is due to the growing body of cases in Australia of people facing harassment, intimidation and persecution because of their religious beliefs and actions. Some are even losing their livelihoods. Organisations such as the Australian Christian Lobby and the Institute for Civil Society have been cataloguing the growing number of cases of religious discrimination and religious freedom incursions over the last three years. In addition, organisations such as the Human Rights Law Alliance have been busy fighting for and defending the rights and religious freedoms of individuals or organisations in various courts throughout Australia.

We are all familiar with the current case of Israel Folau. We are also familiar with previous cases, such as efforts to deregister Dr Pansy Li or to boycott products made by Coopers Brewery due to their perceived views of not supporting same-sex marriage. However, there have been a plethora of other cases, not only in Australia, but in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America. While these cases in Australia have not attracted as much attention, they are just as important to be aware of. These cases have not been reported in the mainstream media. Alarmingly, they continue to increase in frequency. Tonight I would like to highlight some of these cases. The education system has become a battleground for students and teachers because they dare to profess their faith or express an alternative point of view.

Andrew—not his real name—is a Christian student at an Australian university. In a discussion with his classmates, Andrew stated that he would show love to a gay friend but not necessarily agree with his lifestyle. His classmate felt unsafe and complained to the university. Consequently, the university suspended Andrew pending an investigation, amongst other sanctions. Lawyers associated with the Human Rights Law Alliance represented Andrew to secure a reversal of the university decision. One could not imagine the emotional and financial stress suffered by Andrew.

Dan—not his real name—is a teacher. In 2016, during the same-sex marriage postal vote process, he posted links to articles about homosexual marriage. Consequently, he was reported to the education department and subjected to a long investigation. This investigation only stopped when Dan obtained legal representation.

Barry—not his real name—is a lecturer at a tertiary institution. He was officially warned by his employer not to share his religious beliefs about Jesus and threatened with discipline and employment termination. Barry has sought legal assistance to protect his employment. This case is ongoing. It is happening now.

Small business is supposed to be Australia's engine of economic growth and employment. Instead, small business owners and operators are spending precious time and resources defending themselves from intimidation, harassment and legal action. In 2018, Jason Tey, who is a Christian and a Perth based wedding photographer, was approached by a same-sex couple requesting he photograph their children. Jason expressed he had a conflict of belief regarding same-sex marriage, and maybe the couple should hire someone else. Consequently, one of the mothers of the children pursued legal action against Jason. Jason refused to apologise. The complainant eventually withdrew her legal action, but for Jason, this consumed seven months of his life.

People are losing their jobs because they are professing values supposedly not acceptable in the workplace. Clara—not her real name—is a mental health counsellor who dared to share her Christian views on sexuality and gender via social media. Consequently, a progressive political activist complained, and she lost her teaching qualification. She has been denied her livelihood.

Jarrod—not his real name—is a medical doctor. Jarrod, via social media, posted Orthodox Christian beliefs and scientific facts relating to gender and sexuality. Subsequently, the Medical Board instigated an investigation following a complaint. Jarrod may lose his ability to practice medicine. This is another ridiculous example of a person potentially being denied their livelihood.

Ryan—not his real name—was a general manager in a digital services agency in Victoria. When Ryan was asked about the Safe Schools Coalition, he stated that gender fluidity and sexual diversity conflicted with his values. As a consequence, Ryan's employment was terminated because his comments 'created an unsafe workplace'. Ryan successfully pursued legal action against his employer.

Chris, not his real name, was a Commonwealth government employee. His work managers and colleagues put pressure on him to affirm same-sex lifestyles by marching in a pride parade and subscribing to a pride email newsletter. Such sentiments and actions were against his cultural beliefs and heritage. He raised concerns. His Commonwealth government workplace officially warned him and initiated a further investigation for suspected breaches of the Public Service Code of Conduct. Chris obtained legal representation; the investigation was dropped and no further action was taken.

I provide one last and very sad case. A couple wanted to provide the gift of happiness to a child with no parents. Chris and Mary, not their real names, are Christian parents who made an application to foster young children. The child foster agency denied their application due to their orthodox Christian views on gender and sexuality being classified as unsafe.

All these examples, past or present, exhibit the same factors: the victims' innocently expressed their values, either in an education or an employment setting. The victims did not resort to forms of intimidation, harassment, persecution or even violence. In fact, they were targets of the same and punished to such an extent that some of them have lost their livelihoods. This is no dream; it is a reality. For those involved it has become a nightmare. This is supposed to be modern-day Australia, supposedly democratic and free. But this was not the case and isn't the case for these people. You or I could be the next victims.

All of these unfortunate cases illustrate why religious freedom protections are necessary in Australia today.

Senate adjourned at 20:51