The Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria is concerned about religious freedom in Australia. In February 2017, the parliament’s select committee on the exposure draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill unanimously reported: “Overall the evidence supports the need for current protections for religious freedom to be enhanced. This would most appropriately be achieved through the inclusion of ‘religious belief’ in federal anti-discrimination law.”1
Therefore, we recommend that the Expert Panel find appropriate legal mechanisms to achieve the following:
Protect the right of religious organisations or individuals to withhold services or business that might result in them actively or tacitly supporting something that is in conflict with their religious beliefs or conscience.
Protect the right to speak freely, even if their religious views are perceived as insulting or offensive.
Protect the right of religious organisations to employ staff consistent with their beliefs and ethos, including the freedom to uphold moral standards within religious organisations.
Establish a National Religious Freedom Commissioner who will advocate for and be a watchdog of religious freedoms empowered by an appropriate legislative framework.
The Church and Nation Committee
The Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (PCV) exists to serve the General Assembly by providing information and guidance to both the Church and Nation. By Church we mean the PCV as our primary focus, and then the wider church in general. By Nation, we mean the governing bodies in particular and then the electorate at large.
The Committee comes to issues predicated on a high view of the Bible and of our Reformed heritage and a belief that Christianity ought to be a clear voice in the public square, for the common good.
Hostility toward those with religious convictions is growing rapidly in Australia and becoming more overt in business, education, politics, and the media. Historically, protection of religious freedom was rarely done legislatively since Australia was founded on principles of tolerance. The right to freedom of religion was assumed and therefore afforded the status of an assumed inviolability. However, more recently this has been eroded through growing legislative ambiguity and cultural drift.
The pluralistic society Australians are so proud of is at risk if the basic right to freedom of religion is not protected. This is the very right that provides the cohesion that communities of difference need to retain their identity. At the same time, it allows those communities of difference to mutually respect other communities. Due to recent legislative changes, these important social mores are under threat. The absence of any protections for religious freedom seriously threatens our national identity and way of life.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION
Freedom of religion is a longstanding and important biblical, theological and social principle in the Christian tradition. The Bible teaches that people are to be persuaded to believe, not forced to conform (John 1:12–13). The Apostle Paul taught that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9– 10). Note that outward confession, which could be coerced, is not enough—one must also believe in their heart. What happens in a person’s heart is only between them and God, and no external authority or coercion can force a person’s heart to change.
Jesus Christ himself emphasised the importance of the heart in his ministry, and did not seek mere outward conformity to laws or social norms. Rather, he wanted people to freely and joyfully accept the good news that Christians call “the gospel” (John 1:12–13; 3:16). Whilst this is not, strictly speaking, an expression of the modern liberal understanding of freedom of religion, it does demonstrate the biblical assumption that people ought not be coerced in their religious faith. Likewise, a Christian anthropology (our understanding of humankind) invariably emphasises the dignity, capacity, worth, and reasonableness of the person. This is couched in the notion from the creation account in Genesis of people being created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Because people are created in the image of God, they reflect him; they are made for him. All people are, therefore, inherently religious and are made to be worshippers. This theological truth demonstrates the centrality of religious freedom in the Christian understanding of humankind: if everyone is religious, then religious freedom (or the lack thereof) affects everyone. Further, because all people are made in God’s image, they have inherent worth and dignity. That means that someone’s deeply held convictions, decisions, and religious beliefs are worthy of respect. This is the case even if we think they are mistaken. Because they are God’s creatures, made in his image, Christians believe that all people have a right to hold the opinions and beliefs that they do, and to do so freely. This does not preclude others persuading them otherwise. But it does mean that a biblical anthropology offers good grounds for giving people freedom of religion. These biblical principles of non-coercion and human dignity were reinforced in various ways throughout church history. But special attention can be given here to the teaching and practice of the Protestant Reformers, who are the founders of our particular tradition. Admittedly, religious tolerance was not widely practiced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially with the