No, Prime Minister, Australians do have the right to freedom from religion

Why is Parliament devoting so much time to promoting discrimination on a religious basis? To understand Morrison’s motivations, let’s go back to his very first speech as an MP – where he claimed Australia is “not a secular country” and that there’s no “freedom from religion”. This piece was published as a Twitter thread this morning.

In his First Speech to Parliament Scott Morrison says: “My personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda” – and then goes on immediately to quote American politicians –

“As Lincoln said, our task is not to claim whether God is on our side but to pray earnestly that we are on His… Australia is not a secular country — it is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society. As US Senator Joe Lieberman said, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion. I believe the same is true in this country.”

Australia is not a secular country? There is no freedom from religion? This is what Australia’s prime minister believes.

What does the Australian Constitution actually say? Here’s Section 116 in full: “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.”

So the Constitution is pretty clear that no religious observance will be imposed on anyone. This looks quite clearly like freedom from religion. In fact, that section of the Constitution is titled “Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion”.

This week Australia’s parliament is debating whether some people have more rights than others, and whether religious institutions and religious people have the right to discriminate in ways that can cost people their jobs, their livelihoods and even their lives. 

Just a few years ago, the government ignored poll after poll indicating overwhelming support for marriage equality, choosing instead to ignite a toxic, harmful public debate ahead of asking Australians to participate in a non-binding postal survey.

“I don’t think the debate is particularly nuanced,” Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, told Patricia Karvelas on ABC Breakfast this morning. “I think the debate is being held at peak volume, especially on social media.” 

And she’s right – because this divisiveness is exactly what the Australian Government sought once again to achieve. 

Once again, a majority of voters reject a bill that enables discrimination. It’s difficult to see that debate as anything other than one confected by the Australian Government as part of a purposeful political agenda. 

Even NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, a conservative Christian, has said it’s just not needed. “I’ve made it very clear that I don’t believe legislation in this space is necessary… it can end up creating more problems than it’s attempting to solve.”

While deliberately excluding trans children from basic protections at school, they’ve even tried to associate it with strengthening Australian multiculturism – a claim rejected by Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia. 

“This bill gives people a sword, rather than a shield,” Al-Khafaji told Karvelas this morning. “It gives the green light for people to discriminate… It’s divisive and it’s unnecessary… Our communities didn’t ask for this bill – it’s not a priority.”

It’s been deeply touching listening to members of parliament share their personal stories of how this bill will impact their lives and the lives of their loved ones – and how it’s already impacted them. Opposition Financial Services spokesman Stephen Jones gave a moving speech this week on his own family experience including the suicide of his teenage nephew: “HE was gay, he was uncertain about his gender, and he struggled with his mental health.”

I too have personal and family experiences of queer identity, asexual identity, questioning of gender identity, as well as racial, religious and disability discrimination, in both younger and older people. I could have made this a piece sharing personal stories – but you know, that’s absolutely unnecessary. No one’s trauma should have to be triggered in order to ensure no legislation is passed that causes further harm.

I don’t want a civic space that doubles as a confessional. The civic space is not a religious space. 

In our workplaces, our schools and all of our public spaces, all people have the right to enjoy freedom from others’ religion. 

This includes freedom from the harassment and vilification that are the direct result of the Australian Government’s repeated and unpopular attempts to enshrine discrimination in law.

The Constitution, in making it clear that the Commonwealth is not to legislate in respect of religion, needs closer examination to identify contemporary interpretations that protect all genders and cultures, while maintaining the personal, cultural place of religion in the lives of those Australians who choose to observe. 

Because Australia is indeed a secular country, with freedom from other people’s religions a basic right for everyone. 

And after all that damaging distraction – with barely a sitting day left before the budget and the election campaign – the Australian Government has jettisoned the bill, having conveniently run out of time to enact a national anti-corruption body that’s more urgently needed by the day.