The Oz defends our side’s right to be heard

The AusOur national newspaper, The Australian, has made three admirable interventions this week on behalf of the great liberties of a civil society: freedom of conscience / religion, and freedom of speech.

On the weekend, one of the country's most respected journalists, Paul Kelly, warned that "the same-sex marriage goes to the heart of our democracy" and that religious freedom is "under threat":

"The calculated assault on freedom of religious liberty in Australia is rapidly gaining pace with the focus in Tasmania where the Catholic Bishops of Australia now face formal action on the grounds that their defence of traditional marriage contravenes anti-discrimination law.

This action — an effort to deny the Catholic Church the right to ventilate its social and religious views on marriage as a union between a man and a woman — has become a test case. The issue is manifest: it is whether existing law and current public opinion can censor or partially silence the churches from full public expressions of their beliefs.

For Australia and its alleged open spirit of debate, this is an unprecedented situation. It reveals an aggressive secularism dressed in the moral cause of anti-discrimination justice but with a long-run agenda that seeks to transform our values and, ultimately, drive religion into the shadows. The vanguard for this drive is the same-sex marriage campaign…

On the same page of Inquirer, P.19, Nicola Bercovic reported on interviews with the AMF President, Dr David van Gend, the ACL chief Lyle Shelton and others under the title, "Same-sex marriage opponents feel tongue-tied by the thought police":

"ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton... says many in favour of retaining a traditional definition of marriage simply take the view that it’s easier not to engage in the public debate.

“We need to have a public discussion about the consequences of redefining marriage and I know that many people on our side are reluctant to speak publicly,” he says.

“For a start, no one wants to be called a bigot or a hater, which is the way you’re immediately characterised, and then in addition to that is the constant threat that you might find yourself in front of an anti-discrimination commissioner.

”… Toowoomba GP and same-sex marriage opponent David van Gend has been forced to attend Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commission to respond to a complaint about an article he wrote for The Courier-Mail arguing against any change to marriage laws.

The complaint was ultimately withdrawn, but not before van Gend had been forced to give up time to appear before the commission and spent a few thousand dollars on legal fees.

“It costs you time, legal expense and anxiety, and although in my case there was very little of any … other people would not enjoy the experience,” he says.

Like Shelton and others, he believes vilification laws around the country are having a chilling impact on free speech.

“The fact that people out there have seen the Catholic bishops being taken to the thought police for issuing a very gentle and gracious exposition of their ancient beliefs to their own flock … means that people who don’t want grief will tend to stay silent now rather than risk trouble,” he says.

He believes reform is necessary to address the “intolerable” impact the anti-vilification provisions are having on free speech.

“We must not allow laws to be misused to suppress free argument on matters of public importance. These laws do that so they must change,” he says.

The Australian Christian Lobby and free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs have backed those calls to overhaul the law in the lead-up to the national plebiscite.

Shelton wants the Attorney-General’s Department to look ­urgently at options for allowing church groups and others to voice their opinions without the fear of legal action.

“I think we need an urgent commonwealth override of anti-discrimination legislation,” he says.

“This debate is going to run most likely for the next 12 months and it needs to run … (But) if every time we put forward the most inane arguments, as Bishop Porteous did … (we are) hit with an anti-discrimination complaint, how is that going to help our side of the debate put its views forward? We have to be free to speak, otherwise it’s not a fair fight.”

The IPA’s Simon Breheny believes section 17 of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act sets an “unreasonably low threshold” for unlawful conduct and should be amended. He says the legitimacy” of the plebiscite result will rely on the freedom of Australian citizens to voice their opinions.

“It is too easy to ‘offend’, ‘humiliate’, ‘insult’ or ‘ridicule’ a person in the course of robust debate,” he says.

“These words should be removed to ensure that a free discussion can take place…"

Then on Monday, the newspaper's Editorial was devoted to "Ramifications beyond same-sex marriage":

What began as a robust debate about same-sex marriage in Australia has broadened into a discussion of even more profound issues — freedom of speech, the place of religion in the public square and even the rights of church schools to teach their doctrines on key issues to the young.

A calculated assault on freedom of religious liberty is gaining pace, as Paul Kelly wrote in The Weekend Australian on Saturday. What has brought the matter to a head was the finding by the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Robin Banks that the Catholic bishops and the Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous have a case to answer over their pastoral letter Don’t Mess With Marriage. The letter defended existing law and the Catholic sacrament of marriage. It also said gay people must be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity’’ and that “every sign of discrimination’’ should be avoided. It was distributed, among others, to the parents of Catholic school students.

Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome argued that while the Church had “every right to express its views from the pulpit’’ it was “completely inappropriate to enlist young people as the couriers of its prejudice’’. Principals or teachers, he said, who exposed vulnerable children to such “damaging messages’’ violated their duty of care and were a danger to students. Parents and educators who feel a deep responsibility to pass on the faith to children — a right largely taken for granted until now — would disagree strongly.

As Kelly wrote, the Tasmanian action against the bishops is a test case. At stake “is whether existing law and current public opinion can censor or partially silence the churches from full public expressions of their beliefs.’’ Such an unprecedented situation “reveals an aggressive secularism dressed in the moral cause of anti-discrimination justice but with a long-run agenda that seeks to transform our values and, ultimately, drive religion into the shadows’’.

The bishops’ case is not unique. In Queensland, Toowoomba GP Dr David van Gend was forced to attend the Anti-Discrimination Commission to respond to a complaint about an article he wrote in The Courier Mail against same-sex marriage. The complaint, ultimately withdrawn, cost him time and a few thousand dollars in legal fees — considerations that would deter others from speaking out.

The Australian, in supporting personal freedom, does not oppose same-sex marriage. We also support religious freedom and would abhor efforts to smother legitimate debate by the “thought police’’. Before a plebiscite, debate needs to be characterised by rational argument that respects differences and deeply held views and does not silence any players.

Before a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, legislators have much work to do on how state recognition of same-sex marriage can be reconciled with religious freedom and the protection of freedom of conscience. Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has considered the issue in depth and argues that support for same-sex marriage and support for religious freedom should enjoy equal status. But few politicians on either side of the issue appear to have addressed the full implications in the same depth.

A genuinely pluralist, secular democracy cannot banish religious-based opinion from public debate. To do so, as Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher has warned, would be tantamount to a “secularist caliphate’’.

Must be time to get a subscription to a great newspaper that is still run by fair-minded people?

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