We thank the panel for undertaking the important task of examining whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. In this submission, we will briefly explain the Australian Chinese perspective and why religious freedom is important to our community, give current examples from our supporters of how religious freedom is under threat in Australia, explain what religious freedom mean to us, and conclude with our recommendations to the panel.
The Australian Chinese perspective on religious freedom
Why is religious freedom important to the Australian Chinese community? Although our community does include many people of faith (mainly Christian, Buddhism and Taoism), religious freedom is of concern to all members of our community – including people of no faith. Religious freedom is, of course, one of the fundamental principles of a free society and therefore important to everyone; but to our community, this is an issue that we are particularly concerned about because many of our members come from countries where religious freedom is restricted. Many in our community have been the recipients of persecution by the government because of our religious beliefs; indeed, some of us now call Australia home for this reason. Many of us have seen first-hand what a society is like without religious freedom, and therefore we are particularly sensitive to signs that a society is moving towards this direction.
A young mum in Melbourne explains,
As I grew up, I learnt not to speak my mind. Speaking out may mean I might get expelled or lose my job, or the police may come to my door.
I praise God every day for His grace and blessing to me – that I could now live in Australia, a land of such freedom.
However, I have seen a change recently. As the LGBT community push for gay marriage, the rights of people who don’t agree with them are being compromised. Our politicians are called names if they don’t support gay marriage, as are everyday people. Even a Catholic Archbishop was taken to court for supporting traditional marriage – for holding one of their church’s most important values. And programs like “Safe Schools” force sexual ideologies on our children, leaving parents powerless to say no.
Where I work, I see colleagues too fearful to publicly disagree with gay marriage; I see that same fear I used to see in my country of origin!
We believe this was the main reason why the Australian Chinese community opposed the “Safe Schools” issue as strongly as it did. Whatever faith our community members belonged to, we could all see that the “Safe Schools” program represented the State’s imposition of a set of ideologies on our children against their family values, where parents felt powerless to stop it.
During the same-sex marriage debate last year, many of us was alarmed by the vehement opposition and vilification against anyone who spoke against the proponents of same-sex marriage. We are worried about the current state of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in Australia because there is a strong push in the society to bully into silence anyone who does not agree with the “progressive” mainstream viewpoint. Again, members of our community see in this a development towards a society where dissenting views to the law will be persecuted by the government, as they are in the countries we originated from.
We submit that when someone has a different view on marriage because of their religious beliefs, it does not mean that person necessarily discriminates against anyone. It is our opinion that it is not logical to claim that protecting religious freedom necessarily means allowing discrimination.
We are not talking about the discomfort of voicing out an unpopular opinion and having people disagree with us. We understand that if we are free to voice our viewpoint then others are free to disagree with us; and we welcome this. What we are concerned about is that people should not be fearful of punishment by law if they were to express their religious beliefs. A free society should allow a diversity of beliefs to be expressed. It should not prohibit people who hold privately held opinions from expressing them for fear of legal punishment. The freedom to have disagreements and allow a diversity of opinions to be expressed publically is the hallmark of a free society.
An example is a person’s belief in marriage. If a person holds a religious belief of marriage being between a man and woman, this is not equal to discrimination. This person is able to treat people who are same-sex married the same as everyone else, but still hold this belief. But many people voted “no” in the same-sex marriage plebiscite because they see that Australian law is currently inadequate to protect people with these beliefs from being pursued by anti-discrimination laws.
The fact is, many people falsely believe that if one’s belief about the definition of marriage (due to their religious belief) causes offense to someone else, then this is discrimination, and there are people who wish to punish others over this issue through the use of anti-discrimination law. But if discrimination can be caused simply on the grounds of causing offense, by extension this would mean that nobody should ever be allowed to voice their disagreement. Different religious beliefs are, by nature, contradictory so to restrict disagreement is to restrict religious freedom.
An example during last year’s same-sex marriage plebiscite was when our ACF co-founder, Dr Pansy Lai, voiced an opinion in a “No” campaign ad, a Get-up petition was launched calling for her deregistration as a doctor – even though her opinion on same-sex marriage does not, and has not, ever affected her professional capacity to care for all patients, including those from the LGBTI community. It was not a complaint regarding her professional practice – it was merely a false, illogical claim that her opinion on same-sex marriage would affect the way she treats her patients, therefore implying she was unfit to practise as a doctor.
After seeing this, many members of the Australian Chinese community voted “No” in the plebiscite because they do not want a society where the freedom of belief and speech is taken away.
Unfortunately, it is clear that there is increasing opposition and hostility in our society towards people with religious beliefs, and we would welcome positive legislation to protect people’s freedom of speech and religion where this is concerned.
Current examples of religious freedom being under threat from our supporters around Australia
Below are examples and actual quotes from members of the Australian Chinese community demonstrating why religious freedom is currently under threat in Australia. Their identities are kept confidential for their protection.
Parents’ rights to raise their children according their family’s beliefs
A parent of a high school student in Victoria reported that the principal, together with a group of outspoken teachers, strongly supported marriage “equality” during the plebiscite last year. The whole school was decorated with marriage “equality” posters, and one teacher taught a whole class of year 8 students about same-sex marriage, without parental consent, asking them to go home to ask their parents to support same-sex marriage. This parent felt that school had no right teaching children this political ideology, which would be against many families’ religious values, without parental consent, but felt powerless to do anything about it – knowing that the teacher, the principal and indeed the state government have all refused to hear parents’ concerns regarding the “Safe Schools” program. This parent hopes that there can be legal protection for her right as a parent against the imposition of political ideologies on children in the future.
A mother of primary school children explains her opposition to the compulsory running of the “Safe Schools” program in Victoria, and her feeling of helplessness and the lack of protection for her right as a parent:
“I am very confused and not comfortable with the idea my child would be taught those content, which I believe don't untangle the root cause of the bullies, but to confuse kids for their sexual identity. I signed many petitions online and offline. It seems they haven't reached the Victoria government. I am very shocked to see a democracy like this.”
Numerous parents have also expressed to us their concern that the legalisation of same-sex marriage could mean that a religious school’s right to teach according to its religious beliefs and to hire teachers that adhere to the school’s religious beliefs could be affected.
Because of the “Safe Schools” program being compulsory in many state schools, many of these parents who have the means to access the private school system are turning to religious schools. They express their wish that the schools’ rights to continue to teach according to their religious values on marriage and to employ staff who hold these religious values be protected. They believe that parents have the right to an education that is consistent with their family’s values, and hope that the government will put in place protections to this effect.
The right to speak and act according to one’s religious beliefs
In view of the recent passing of euthanasia laws in Victoria, many doctors and nurses have expressed to us their concern that if their professional body requires them to perform acts that are legal but contradict their personal beliefs (e.g. euthanasia), they do not have adequate protection from the law to ensure that their professional registration would not be stripped away when they speak out or act according to their conscientious.
A doctor working in palliative care states,
“As a Palliative Care doctor and Christian, I am concerned that the legalisation of euthanasia will lead to its widespread acceptance and implementation in medical practice, which is against the values of Christianity and other religions, and also against the medical ethical code of "Do no harm." Even if we choose not to carry out euthanasia, we may have to accept it occurring in our work place and even in our presence. Once it becomes accepted practice, we may legally be expected to refer patients to the relevant practitioner, even if it is against our conscience. We may also be marginalised when we voice our objection.”
A registered psychologist explains that there is increasing pressure on her profession to endorse gender conversion therapy even though the research evidence of benefit on this form of treatment remains controversial.
"I am a Christian who is also a registered psychologist and am hoping that the government can put in legislation to protect health professionals’ religious freedom. In particular, if a client asks my opinion on gender conversion therapy, I would not be recommending it... I believe it is in the child’s best interest not to engage in this therapy. I do not believe that expressing this opinion should cause me to lose my professional license but am aware that others may wish this to happen. Therefore, I am hoping the government may place protections for health professionals in matters such as these."
What religious freedom means to us
- The freedom to raise our children in accordance with our family’s religious belief. This includes the right to withdraw children from undertaking sexual and ideological education against our family’s beliefs at a government school. It also means freedom to choose an education according to our faith, so that parents have the choice to enter their children at a faith-based school where the school has the freedom to teach according to its religious values, and to employ staff belonging to that faith.
- The freedom to choose to be part of organisations that hold to religious values and that employ staff who hold these values. Religious institutions such as schools, charities, churches and community organisations should not be forced to choose between compromising their religious values or lose government funding, because they provide essential services and a strong community for a substantial part of the population. They should be free to employ staff and conduct their businesses according to their religious values and core beliefs.
- The freedom to voice our religious beliefs in public, the freedom to not be forced to act against our beliefs, without having our professional licence or registration taken away or being threatened by anti-discrimination laws. People should not be forced into making or endorsing statements opposed to their religious beliefs. Individuals should not be forced to choose between acting against their religious beliefs or losing their jobs or being punished by law.
The need for positive formal legal protection for freedom of religion in Australia.
We submit that there is currently inadequate formal legal protection of freedom of religion in Australia.
Religious freedom is under threat from anti-discrimination laws (especially at the state level) which have the effect of restricting religious speech. People of faith are not protected from discrimination at a federal level based on their religion. It is inconsistent that other attributes such as age, sex, disability, race, sexual orientation and gender identity are protected but religious belief is not.
We are concerned at the trend of development of anti-discrimination laws which are increasingly placing other interests above religious beliefs. Freedom of religion should be a right that is recognised and protected positively by law on the Federal level.
Instead of putting in exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, which can be rolled back by future unsympathetic governments, we believe that positive legislations that actively protect religious freedom is greatly needed in Australia at the current time.
Recommendations to the panel:
Freedom of religion should be protected in the same way that other attributes are currently protected under Federal anti-discrimination laws. We would welcome the creation of a Freedom of Religion Act to that effect, which overrides current state laws in the case of inconsistencies. We hope that this will provide positive protection of religious freedom and protect individuals from being pursued by anti-discrimination laws when exercising their freedom of religious speech, and protect individuals from being coerced into acting against their religious beliefs.
We believe that the government should provide an anti-detriment provision that prevents the loss of government employment or professional registrations for individuals because of their religious beliefs. Individuals should have the right to express their religious views on same-sex marriage and other issues, and to refuse to act against their religious beliefs, without detrimental effects to their employment and professional registration.
We believe that the government should put in place protection against the compulsion to perform acts which are contrary to conscience or belief – e.g. to protect health professionals and those training to be health professionals from being forced to be involved in abortion or euthanasia against their religious beliefs.
We believe the government should protect the right of parents or guardians to ensure that the religious and moral education of their children are in conformity with their own family and religious values. We ask that parents be given the right to withdraw their children from classes in government schools that involve sexual and ideological education against their family’s religious beliefs.
We believe that the government should provide an anti-detriment provision that prevents government funding / charity registration / other accreditations being tied to a test that disqualifies a religious body due to religious belief.
We believe the government should protect the rights of churches, religious schools and religious institutions to act according to their religious beliefs and be allowed to employ staff who share their religious values.
Thank you for the chance to contribute to this most important discussion. We give consent for this submission to be published by the Panel, and we would welcome the opportunity to provide further input for the panel’s considerations if required.
 All the quotes in this submission paper are genuine quotes from members of the Australian Chinese community. Their identities are kept confidential for their protection.