Address to Public Interest Advocacy Centre Forum

On 24 January 2020, President Dr Deidre Palmer took part in a forum in Sydney organised by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre on the latest version of the Religious Freedom Bills drafted by the Federal Government.

Dr Deidre Palmer: Thank you for the invitation to be part of this conversation. I hope that at this forum we can progress this important conversation.

The Uniting Church has for many years called for religious freedoms in Australia to be protected within a broader picture of the commitment to uphold all human rights. Our preference is for the development of a Human Rights Act or Charter.

Uniting Church members enjoy the freedom to practice our religion in Australia and we seek to do it in such a way that encourages the wellbeing and flourishing of all people, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality or religion.

We would not want, in exercising our right to practice our religion, to violate the human rights of others.

The fundamental Christian belief is that every person is created in the image of God, deeply loved by God and of infinite value, and that every person is equal before God and before the law.

We have and will continue to advocate for all people to be respected, treated with dignity, and to have their rights protected.

The first and second drafts of this Religious Discrimination Bill give us the freedom to practice our religion.

This is a good thing, although I might add it’s a right which we already enjoy without impediment.

My concern with the design of this Bill is to make sure that protections for religious belief do not undermine the rights, wellbeing and sense of identity of other people.

Over the years women, First Peoples, and LGBTIQ people have suffered from particular interpretations of Scripture and practices of religion that I would call “narratives of harm”, rather than “narratives of hope”.

Within the Uniting Church context, we would expect our congregations and ministry agents to express their faith in such a way that they are contributing to the wellbeing of people and communities in which they are ministering.

From my experience, Uniting Church schools and agencies do not discriminate in their employment practices, and don’t want to either.

The exception we have sought, is the ability to discriminate in terms of belief for key leadership roles within the Church and our agencies, roles that we see as crucial to the transmission of the faith and our ethos. (President, Moderator, General Secretary, chaplains). Generally, in job descriptions for such positions, it is clearly stated that these are essential requirements.

The Uniting Church supports this legislation, where it protects religious minorities who experience discrimination. We support protection for other faiths in Australia. People of Muslim, Jewish and other faiths are much more likely to be the subject of religious discrimination.

We have heard from the Jewish community about the ongoing anti-Semitism they experience and the research from the Islamophobia project has documented ongoing discrimination against people of Muslim faith here in Australia.

To be a welcoming, inclusive, multi-faith and multicultural society, it is important that people are able to freely practice religion without fear.

Christians of all persuasions enjoy and exercise a robust freedom of speech in Australia. But privileging statements of religious belief at the expense of other people’s dignity and wellbeing is not something we support.

Christians in Australia are not persecuted. In Australia, churches aren’t victims. To cultivate some kind of victim status is disingenuous. We are significant, influential organisations, actively contributing in positive ways to the Australian community.

Uniting Church agencies deliver community services to more than 1.4 million people.

Our schools educate hundreds of thousands of students.

To sum up, my understanding of Christian faith and the way of Jesus is that it is about liberation, love and justice for all people.

These are the positive values I’d like to see reflected when Christians speak about human rights.

Whatever the outcome of this legislation, I would hope that both within Australian faith communities and in our wider Australian society, that we would promote respectful conversation among people who have different viewpoints, for the common good of all.