In recent years, laid-back Australians have pondered a serious, philosophical question: how free should we be to speak our mind? Or in pointier words, should people who say offensive things face harsher consequences?
This is what the Margaret Court and Israel Folau controversies were all about. As Australians, we love our sport — so it’s no wonder some of our greatest sporting heroes became a lightning rod for this issue.
Aussies have been pretty good at the ‘live and let live’ mantra. Common sense tells us, if someone is sharing a scripture on their own social media in their own time, that’s their right. Likewise, if you are Christian school and parents pay significant fees to send their kids to a school that reiterate the values taught at home, why not have the discretion to hire staff that intrinsically share those core values and beliefs? Surely those who ‘demand’ the ‘right’ to work at such a school, despite not agreeing to those values or beliefs, would be massively uncomfortable? That’s not discrimination, that’s common sense.
For many years, Australian Christians have travelled across WA, hosting MOMENTUM workshops where we’ve talked about Religious Discrimination, Freedom of speech and expression and what a potential Act could mean for those Christians who have found themselves facing the letter of the law due to their religious expression. Sadly, it seems we are past the point of live and let live, but our voices in the political space is still necessary! If we do not participate in these important conversations, it creates a perfect gap for someone else to fill and guide the rhetoric. The real challenge is keeping Christians emboldened and equipped so that we can confidently participate in these matters.
The truth is that even in the ‘free world’, we have always been limited in what we can say. And for good reason. English common law — which Australia inherited — doesn’t allow “incitement” to commit crimes. “Shouting fire in a crowded theatre” is a popular American example of the kind of speech that should be banned.
Our own Federal government notes that freedom of expression in Australia can be limited where “the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals” are at stake.
We can’t go around slandering the good name of others, encouraging violence, or undermining the safety of fellow citizens. And thank God for that.
But what about so-called “hate speech”?
In recent decades, nations like Australia have passed anti-discrimination laws to protect groups of people based on their age, ability, ethnicity or sex. Many industries have also brought in codes of conduct and powerful boards that can punish discrimination in the workplace.
While we can be grateful that people who were once marginalised are now more included, some developments have gone too far — especially regarding what can and cannot be said.
The Human Rights Law Alliance tells of over 30 Australians who have lost their jobs, been excluded from education, or had their accreditation stripped simply for expressing their faith.
The more secular Australia has become, the more the Bible itself risks being seen as “hate speech”. Recall that what ultimately cost Israel Folau his career was a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and an honest (if blunt) call to repentance for people living a homosexual lifestyle.
This is why the Religious Discrimination Bill is so important at this time in Australia’s history. Set to be voted on in the coming weeks, the bill’s purpose is not to give special treatment to people of faith. It will simply ensure that religious people have adequate protections in line with other groups. Faith may have fallen on hard times in Australia, but people of faith still deserve a fair go.
John Steenhof, the Managing Director of the Human Rights Law Alliance, expresses the concerns of many Australians when he says:
The fundamental freedoms of Christians as individuals and as groups to speak, think, exercise conscience and associate in public and private are increasingly under threat as Australian society becomes more fragmented and moves away from its Christian roots, as the volumes of federal and state legislation expand at an exponential rate and as employment contracts morph into manifestos of groupthink.
Protecting religious freedom is more important than many people realise. It’s not just about a fair go for believers. All our freedoms are at stake if the Christian faith is muzzled. Why? Because our freedoms owe their very existence to the teachings of Jesus.
What we forget is that the freedom to speak your mind and live out your faith authentically were not protected for most of history. Still today, these human rights are not meaningfully protected for the majority of the world’s population.
The Bible insists that human beings are not merely animals or “cogs in the machine” of the universe. We are individuals who were created in God’s image — with our own independent thoughts that can and should be expressed. In the Middle Ages, Catholic lawyers built on the Imago Dei to develop the idea of natural rights.
The Reformation took this a step further. Convinced that the church had come to wield far too much power over the inner lives of its people, Martin Luther declared, “For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself.”
The Reformers set out to redefine faith. But in the process, historians recognise that they also redefined the dignity of the human person, endowed the self with moral authority, and set the stage for the idea of individual freedom.
The documents that most shaped the modern world include the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). All of them arose in distinctly Christian lands, resting on and expressing Christian ideas. Without them, we simply would not have our concept of human rights today.
Even Australia’s Constitution, which explicitly notes religious freedom (Section 116), and acknowledges “the blessing of Almighty God” in its preamble.
In other words, religious freedom is good for everyone, not just people of faith. By protecting freedom of speech and freedom of religion against secular attacks, we ensure that future generations of Australians will hear the Good News of Jesus and will continue to benefit from the amazing impact he has had on our world.
-Voting on the Bill is imminent and much prayer is needed to ensure its potential passage in the coming weeks -
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