Opinion: Daily Telegraph + AIM Network: Religious Freedom Review

Published on 22.1.18.  The Daily Telegraph online.
Published on 22.1.18.  The Herald Sun online.
Published on 22.1.18.  The Advertiser online.
Published on 17.1.18.  The Australian Independent Media Network.

Philip Ruddock’s “Religious Freedom Review” is of concern to same-sex couples
but how will tax-payers respond to more religious privilege for the churches?

For almost 80 per cent of the nation’s households— with incomes less than $200,000 per year — their primary concerns centre on high electricity costs, rising prices, and poor prospects for wage-growth to compensate.  The clamour by churches and religious lobbyists for more “religious freedom” will not register on their radar.  When pressed, most are aware that people can believe what they wish, and churches already have a well established authority within society.  Why the call for more “freedom”?

Religious institutions have nothing to fear — they are secure in their constitutional right to promote religion, and retain a gilt-edged financial status.  But few citizens will recognise the extent to which religious institutions exercise political influence, while retaining much entitlement and privilege.

Why then, would Malcolm Turnbull extend such privileges?

Church leaders have been deeply anxious since same-sex marriage became front-page news three years ago.  Throughout the extended public debate, and during the ‘postal survey’, assorted Christian lobbies complained of restricted ‘rights’ to speak out against gay marriage.

But the public have been misled by calls for greater ‘religious freedom’.  The core agenda for lobbyists, religious leaders, and some parliamentarians is to gain new exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.  Central to it all is a demand for all marriage celebrants — religious and civil — to refuse to marry gay couples, and for devout business owners in the marriage industry to deny retail services to gay couples.

To enable Marriage Act amendments to pass — and as a sop to his conservative LNP — Malcolm Turnbull established the ‘Religious Freedom Review’, headed by former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock.

Precisely what additional entitlements are to be conjured up by this Ruddock Review, and what does this say about the political influence of Christian lobbyists in a secular democracy?

“Freedom” has nothing to do with it.  What they desire in not freedom — which is enshrined in our constitution — but rather the American concept of ‘religious liberty’ to discriminate further against the LGBTI community, and to others who do not share their interpretations of the Old Testament.

This may well come back to haunt the Prime Minister if, as expected, the Ruddock Review delivers recommendations that acquiesce to the polarising agenda from the Christian lobby.  Such discriminatory ideas are alien to 78 per cent of the population who, according to a 2016 IPSOS poll, wish to separate religion from the business of government.

Rather than sinking Australia deeper into a ‘soft theocracy’, federal parliament would do better to work seriously towards the separation of Church and State, and begin winding back excessive entitlements of mainstream churches.  It would include reassessing the huge sums they avoid in tax, and go a long way to alleviating the financial pressure on the great majority of hard-working Australians.

Since federation, churches of every faith pay no tax, which includes most state and federal taxes — the levies, charges and taxation imposts paid by citizens and businesses.  Many of these benefits flow from 17th century English law, giving tax exemptions to the (then) newly formed Church of England.  Such largess was based wholly on their charter to “advance religion.”  Little has changed.

Religion avoids assessable taxes (excluding genuine charitable works) to the tune of some $20 billion each year — sufficient revenue to fix the budget deficit.  All governments ignore this elephant in the room for fear of alienating the churches, but it’s a tempting idea — for hard-working men and women — to have religion finally paying their way, rather than giving them more freedom to discriminate.

Australia is one of the last western countries to have finally removed historical discrimination against the LGBTI community, when we tentatively legalised gay marriage in December last year.  So why on Earth would the federal government impose new discriminations — contrived by religious lobbyists — to allow Christians in the marriage industry to refuse retail and other services to same-sex couples?

The safe bet is that Philip Ruddock’s ‘Religious Freedom Review’ will recommend further concessions to benefit a religious community already highly privileged with exemptions from anti-discrimination and taxation laws.  But the Ruddock proposals will still need to play out on the floor of parliament, and defeat for the Prime Minister will be costly.  That may well happen.

Such an outcome will reinforce the triumph of marriage equality, and throw into stark relief the failure to grant religion further discriminatory rights.  It may even flag an end to the ‘age of entitlement’ for churches and embolden enough MPs to think seriously about breaking with 17th century tradition to begin taxing religious profits.  Most certainly, that would come as welcome relief to working Australians who continue to subsidise private church enterprises through their hard-earned taxes.

The National Secular Lobby Limited