RSA Webinar: ‘Religious freedom’ discourse being wielded to discriminate against others

Si Gladman / 29 October 2021

The prevailing ‘religious freedom’ discourse in Australia is being wielded by hard-Right politicians, ‘culture warriors’ and the Christian Right to legitimise laws that discriminate against LGBTIQ people and others, the latest RSA Webinar heard.

In Wednesday’s webinar (watch the video below), Rev. Dr Elenie Poulos presented on how the discourse on ‘religious freedom’ had dramatically changed in Australian politics over the past four decades.

The shift to a focus on ‘freedom of belief’ since 2015, which emerged in the context of the same-sex marriage debate, is far removed from the earlier ‘religious diversity’ discourse that prevailed from 1984-2010 and focused on protecting vulnerable minorities in an increasingly multicultural and pluralistic Australia.

Between 2011-14, ‘balancing rights’ was the dominant discourse in framing ‘religious freedom’ debates, as the Christian Right portrayed Christianity as becoming a minority religion besieged by rising secularism and threatened by an imbalance with lesser ‘optional’ equality rights.

“The public debates on both the Folau case and the draft Religious Discrimination Bill centre on the extent of freedom people have to express religious beliefs which may harm or offend others, or that might otherwise be unlawful. Both cases demonstrate how dominant the ‘freedom of belief’ discourse has become,” said Rev. Dr Poulos (pictured), an ordained minister in the Uniting Church.

“In privileging the right to express a religious belief above all the other rights currently protected in law – which is what the government’s draft bill seeks to do – this discourse offers little to people living with the harms caused by religious prejudice.”

Co-presenter Professor Marion Maddox said the framing of religious freedom as ‘freedom of belief’ had become more evident in recent years, particularly among religious conservatives in the anti-vaxxer movement.

She pointed to biblically framed statements such as the Ezekiel Declaration and Moses Declaration about the right not to be vaccinated and the right not to impose vaccination requirements on church attenders as prime examples.

“Claiming ‘I believe this and you can’t argue with me because that’s my belief, and my belief is untouchable’ has become a kind of hill that particularly some Christian conservatives seem prepared to fall on,” she said.

“And they have framed it as a question of authority. [Statements such as the Ezekiel Declaration and Moses Declaration] are being framed as questions about who’s in charge – the church or the state.

“…this question of religion and belief – my right to believe whatever I want to – is becoming a kind of pressure point for questions about authority and who’s in charge.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.