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Religious freedom a human right


The Australian Law Reform Commission report, ‘Maximising the Realisation of Human Rights: Religious Education Institution and Anti-Discrimination Laws’ was presented in Federal Parliament by the Attorney General Mark Dreyfus on March 21.

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As quoted from the Commission’s website, the recommended reforms will ‘substantially narrow the circumstances in which discrimination by religious educational institutions of their students and staff is permissible by law’.

If the report’s recommendation is accepted by the Government and passed into law it would remove the ability of our Catholic schools to employ staff who share our Catholic values. It would undermine our freedom to teach, witness and consistently share religious values with the families who choose to send their children to our schools.

This is an issue of the freedom of religion which must be seen as an inherent human right.

It’s an issue that springs from our inherent human dignity. We recognise the God-given gift of the human spirit and soul and the consequent freedom to follow the promptings of that unquenchable thirst for what’s right, good, and fulfilling in life. Deep within each of us is the echo of the voice of God calling us to seek and find and commit ourselves to goodness. We are truly human when we do this.

The Vatican Council called this the voice of conscience within each of us that each must follow. This freedom to follow one’s conscience goes hand-in-hand with the freedom of religion; when our hearts can accept and name that voice within us as the voice of God and when we choose to follow.

By grace and the gift of faith, we can acknowledge, accept and follow Jesus Christ as the word of God that connects to the deepest yearnings of our hearts and souls. To be free to search, accept, follow, and share the values of our faith that give meaning to our lives is essentially the essence of our humanity and a human right.

Through our Catholic schools we always acknowledge that we act and teach in the place of parents who naturally have the right and responsibility to educate and form their children according to their values and faith. When parents freely choose to send their children to our schools, knowing and accepting the whole Catholic ethos and values system that underpins and enlightens all education and formation in maturity, then who would overrule this right?

There’s also a broader issue. It’s the overreach of governments. Yes, ours is a secular society, but we easily forget that secular means the freedom for religion, not the freedom from religion. But this is what’s happening and what uncritical thinking is letting happen.

It was an enlightened way of thinking for our political parties to acknowledge and accept from their members in parliament the right to a conscience vote on various social issues and because of conscience be free to move beyond the party line. But when freedom of conscience is downplayed, what takes its place? Political correctness and in most cases, an ever-increasing rights agenda that conveniently disconnects itself from personal responsibility.

We expect our governments to solve all our social problems and they are tempted to think they can. But without the deepest respect for the human spirit, for conscience and freedom of religion, their task is frustrated; only operating externally on the level of money, resources, legislation, laws and sanctions in the hope of changing behaviours. Without an education system underpinned by moral and spiritual values, the latest popular ideologies are the best that can be shared with our children. Never enough.

It would be a myopic and arrogant government that would not recognise and encourage the human spirit to flourish by undermining the freedom of religion in faith-based schools, hospitals and charitable institutions.

I finish with a quote from the Australian Constitution:

‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

-Fr Dean Marin is Vicar General of the Adelaide Archdiocese

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