Senate debates

Thursday, 1 August 2019


Religious Freedom

6:48 pm

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

I rise this evening to once again speak on the important issue of religious freedom. Recently I launched a petition on behalf of Australians of faith or not of faith for a religious freedom act. I take this opportunity to once again thank the people of Australia for supporting my petition. I have been humbled by the outpouring of support from people right across Australia. I encourage all who believe in freedom of speech to continue to sign and mail the petition to my electorate office as soon as possible and as often as possible.

As I continue to meet with religious leaders and their communities, they continually voice their concerns about their institutions being closed down and staff at their various centres, facilities and charitable organisations at risk of losing their jobs. The reason for this being because they have expressed their beliefs or values.

The need for positive religious freedom laws is due to the growing body of cases in Australia of people having their freedom of speech, conscience, thought and religion eroded, one person at a time, one case at a time. 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 several years, and organisations such as the Human Rights Law Alliance have been representing and defending the rights and religious freedoms of individuals and organisations in various courts throughout Australia.

As I did last week, I would like to spend some time highlighting cases in Australia of discrimination that do not receive any attention from mainstream media, yet they are important because, as I said last week, it could be you or I on the next occasion. Jamie—not his real name—is a Christian and a supporter of traditional marriage. He is also a teacher at a government school. He shared articles from various sources about same-sex marriage and offered his own alternative views. Complaints were made to his school about him being homophobic. Consequently, Jamie was placed under investigation by the Department of Education for alleged breaches of discipline. He sought legal advice and negotiations took place with the education department. The investigation was subsequently dropped and there were no adverse findings against Jamie.

Another case relates to freedom of speech and street preaching. Caleb Corneloup is a street evangelist who has been preaching for several years. He applied to Launceston City Council for a permit to conduct street preaching and evangelistic activities in the city mall. However Launceston City Council declined his permit. Consequently, he sought legal advice from the Human Rights Law Alliance against the local council prohibition in the Federal Court. He argued that such a decision was not properly made, was discriminatory on the grounds of religion and was invalid by reason of the implied freedom of political communication in the Australian Constitution. He was successful and the council granted him a permit to evangelise in the city mall.

Michelle Fraser—and this is her real name—is a woman who was a pro-life advocate and has been personally affected by abortion. She decided to stand on a Melbourne footpath in the vicinity of an abortion clinic and hold images of a dead fetus. She wanted expectant mothers who are considering an abortion to know that an unborn child is a living human being. Consequently, a police officer fined Michelle. She was charged with the criminal offence of displaying an obscene figure in a public place. After she was convicted in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court, the alliance provided legal assistance and challenged the decision in both the County Court and the Supreme Court of Victoria. Lawyers argued the image was not obscene because it was comparable to shocking images of a political or health warning nature. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Victoria upheld the decision, finding the image was obscene and disgusting. This is particularly relevant given the protests that we are now seeing outside the New South Wales parliament. Minister Damien Tudehope, in an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald today, described the laws as 'the most extreme abortion laws in the country—perhaps in the world—including unrestricted abortion until the moment of birth'.

I move to another example. Maria—not her real name—is a medical general practitioner. She is a doctor who has conscientious convictions about various issues, including family and bioethics. She was approached by a couple wanting to utilise IVF services. Maria explained that such medical procedures were not within her area. The couple requested a referral to see another doctor, which she declined. Consequently, the couple lodged an official complaint against her with the Medical Board alleging she had unfairly discriminated against them in her practice of medicine. The Medical Board ruled the complaint was without bias, and this is an important win for the freedom of conscience for doctors.

Neil Aitchison is a Christian pastor in Adelaide. He strives to assist the poor in his area. He also travels regularly to Myanmar and India to empower local people to build small businesses to reduce poverty. His Sanctuary Surfers business raises money to support these initiatives. The shop displays products with Bible quotes and Christian paraphernalia. In 2016 a journalist visited his shop and found, amongst the stock items, T-shirts bearing the words 'Love is choice'. An article followed in the local newspaper entitled 'Sanctuary Surf causes waves of offence'. The article alleged the shirt had an intended homophobic hate message. It also attacked Neil on other grounds. The allegations were not true. Consequently, after the publication of the article, the shop was vandalised several times, his front windows were smashed and he was inundated with prank telephone calls. When Neil went to speak to the local newspaper about the article, the police were called and, when they arrived, they promptly removed him for allegedly trespassing. He sought legal advice on this, and the alliance was able to help Neil in obtaining an appropriate settlement for defamation and his associated losses.

All these examples demonstrate the same characteristic—the victims innocently exercising their rights to freedom of speech, of conscience, of thought and of religion. They did not resort to forms of intimidation, harassment, persecution or violence. Unfortunately, they were targets of the very same behaviour, and had to resort to legal avenues to reassert their rights as Australian citizens. One would think that this should not be happening in Australia, but it is, and future cases like this are not going to disappear with the enactment of a minimalist religious antidiscrimination act. These cases can only be averted with the enactment of a full suite of provisions for religious protection, such as a religious freedom act.

I reiterate my plea to those quiet Australians of family and faith to write to their local MP. I refer again to what is happening in New South Wales at the moment. What is especially galling, as has been outlined in an exclusive article in today's Daily Telegraph, is the fact that the MP pushing that bill actually communicated this to the government and the Premier, but, as I have been told by various people, there has not been adequate time for consultation. So, as Mr Tudehope has urged people—and I support his plea—please contact your local MP. Make sure you 'give them an earful', because, as he says in his piece today:

… legislators from across the political divide tried to ride roughshod over parliamentary procedure and pass abortion laws that barely anyone in the state has even heard of.

As he states, if you and people of faith and family do not communicate these issues and your concerns to your MP, you too will be ridden over roughshod in future months, as this bill comes before the parliament.

I conclude by thanking the many, many people who have written to me, who are giving me support, but, more importantly, who are writing to their MPs urging them to act.

Senate adjourned at 18:59