Media Coverage: Secular lobby advocates equality as religious leaders weigh in on election

Published in The Guardian, 17 April 2019.


The tussle between secularism and religious freedom will enter the federal election fray this week.

The National Secular Lobby is launching a campaign aimed at jolting a complacent secular majority to consider the impact of religious exemptions and privileges that are flying under the radar.

“In order to have true religious freedom in Australia, we must pursue secular policy,” the lobby’s president, Peter Monk, told Guardian Australia.

“Secularism is not anti-religious; it simply ensures that no one is unduly persecuted or privileged because of their beliefs. It promotes equal rights and representation for people of all religions, and for people of no religion, in the public square.”

Monk said the lobby was concerned about special treatment of church-owned businesses such as Sanitarium, which is owned by the Seventh-day Adventist church. It has tax-free status despite being a multimillion-dollar company.

The lobby’s high-profile ambassadors include the broadcaster Philip Adams, the euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke, the human rights lawyer and Greens candidate for Kooyong Julian Burnside and the commentator Jane Caro.

Monk said the campaign aimed to send a reminder to major parties and all candidates that Australians are overwhelmingly secular and government policies should reflect that.

A 2016 poll of 1,032 people conducted by Ipsos found that 78% of Australians don’t want religion influencing social policy.

Religious freedom became an issue of contention during the 45th parliament, in Malcolm Turnbull’s failed attempt to overhaul section 18C of the racial discrimination laws; Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review; marriage equality laws; debate about whether religious schools could sack gay teachers or discriminate against same sex-attracted students; and proposals for anti-discrimination laws to protect religious people.

The Australian Christian Lobby says it is seeking to elevate religious freedom as an election issue in light of the controversy about Israel Folau’s social media comments and anti-abortion activists losing a high court bid to overturn clinic safe-access zones in two states.

“It will fall to the next government to resolve the religious freedom question,” said its managing director, Martyn Iles.

Iles identified freedom of speech, association and conscience, freedom from discrimination, and freedom for parental choice as key issues for his campaign.

“None of the major parties have yet been clear regarding their plans to resolve the emerging issues with democratic freedom in Australia,” he said.

The Catholic church released its election campaign message on Wednesday including a prayer offering a blessing to those who are elected to serve the nation.

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Mark Coleridge, said: “We all have a role in promoting peace – which means speaking to our fellow Australians with love not hate, with respect not contempt, with understanding not indifference.

“We all need to be more open, interested and engaged in order to combat the crude tribalism that is infecting Australia and other nations at this time.”

The key Catholic policy issues include economic fairness, support for the vulnerable including the unborn and elderly, just treatment for asylum seekers, action on climate change and closing the health, education and employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“The ongoing revelations of child sexual abuse have undermined the credibility of the Catholic church, and particularly the credibility of bishops. We have no monopoly on truth, but we offer these reflections in a spirit of solidarity,” Coleridge said.

With Scott Morrison Australia’s first Pentecostal prime minister, some Pentecostal preachers are pointing believers in the Liberals’ direction.

A Sydney Pentecostal pastor, Don Modarelli – who has run for state politics as a Christian Democrat candidate and whose church is based in Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah – will be urging his followers to vote for candidates who support religious protections.

“We want to point people away from the Labor party, which is the party of abortions … the party of speech control, thought control, thought police,” Modarelli told Guardian Australia. “I say vote for your values. I never tell them who to vote for.”

He’ll be distributing a values checklist to his churchgoers which lists issues such as the Safe Schools program, euthanasia, abortion and religious rights.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a peak body representing Jewish groups, will be sending out a policy questionnaire to the two major parties, the Greens and key independents this week.

Its co-chief executive officer, Peter Wertheim, said the results would be published on the organisation’s website and would help Jewish voters weigh up policy platforms.

The survey will cover foreign policy and the Israel-Palestine issue but Wertheim said domestic matters were more important. These included education, national security, religious freedom and racism.

And the Australian National Imams Council has urged Muslims to use their vote to take a stand against candidates who promote xenophobia, inequity, racism and marginalisation of any community.

It urges Muslim people to pay close attention to parties’ policy positions on employment opportunities, health, education, law enforcement, immigration, foreign policies, safeguarding against religious discrimination, infrastructure and the promotion of diversity.

“Bringing Islamic values to political life supports such universal ideals as strong families, protection of the weak, and equity for all,” said the grand mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed.

“Our faith compels us to act in ways that benefit all people. Australian Muslims can, and should, contribute to significant positive change by voting responsibly and make their voice and concerns heard.”