Religion protected, but not respected

13 May 2009

By The Record

Cardinal Pell points out the realities of religious freedom being protected by international law.


Cardinal George Pell addresses the Ambrose Institute launch at NSW Parliament House on April 23, highlighting the irony of religious liberty protected in international law but treated as an ‘organised eccentricity’ domestically.


By Anthony Barich

The heavy-hitters of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths have combined forces to launch a new ecumenical institute to combat increasing restrictions on the right to manifest religious beliefs in the public domain.
Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, Anglican Archbishop Dr Peter Jensen, Venerable Thich Phuoc Nhon of the Buddhist faith and former deputy Prime Minister John Anderson all addressed the launch of The Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberties at NSW Parliament House on April 23.
Cardinal Pell told the launch that while freedom of religion and belief is affirmed throughout international law as a fundamental human right, in practice it can be treated as if it is a “limited concession” granted by the State to allow space for “individual or organised eccentricities, provided they do not cause offence or impede the rights of others”.
“This is more akin to a narrow concept of toleration for strange or suspect minorities than to religious freedom, properly understood,” he said.
This flies in the face of the fact that religious people, or those who identify themselves as a particular religion, are not a minority in Australia, as just under 70 per cent of the population indicated a religious affiliation in the 2006 Census.
“Nor is religious freedom simply a right to toleration”, he said, adding that Australians generally value the role that religious organisations play in the life of the community and take it for granted that religious views will be heard in the public debate.
“To require, as some have argued, that religious people quarantine their beliefs from any public debate or activity – or even from their profession – is not only unfair but intolerant.”
This is not only unjust but impractical, as “beliefs and ideas lead us to act”. “The idea that a person’s religious and moral convictions can and should be separated from works of service treats those works as nothing more than a variety of the secular social justice or secular welfare work which other non-religious NGOs (non-government organisations) also provide,” he said.
The launch comes within three months of 50 religious leaders, including representatives of the Catholic Church, meeting on February 10 to discuss the Review of the Exceptions and Exemptions under the Equal Opportunity Act by the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee.
Melbourne Catholic Arch-diocesan Human Resources manager Tom Carr told The Record that this meeting was a response to the urgent issue that the religious freedom is under threat, especially in educational institutions. The religious groups are concerned about religious freedoms under the existing Act, which will not be given a conscience vote when it is read into Victoria’s Parliament.
At the launch of the Ambrose Centre, which has international advisors from the Acton Institute and the Becket Fund in the United States and the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship in the United Kingdom, Mr Anderson commented on the lack of intellectual depth shown by secularist forces in their contribution to society’s welfare needs. He said that people with religious conviction instinctively involve themselves in organisation’s that assist the needy, homeless and sick, and stressed the right of such individuals to make this a public statement of their religious beliefs.
Archbishop Jensen went further, saying that people of all faiths should “be able to speak boldly in the marketplace, especially on morals issues and not be pushed into the private sphere by secularists”. “Social harmony and individual rights need to be tempered so that justice can be applied as a whole for all to enjoy.”