National News

The Ruddock review and responding to change

Friday 15 June 2018

Media and Communications Office 

The Australian Government’s Inquiry into Religious Liberty, under the leadership of Philip Ruddock, presented its report to Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in May 2018.

The report, which currently remains unreleased to the public, is in the hands of the Prime Minister. It will offer Australia’s leadership an insight into how the country should move forward at a time where religious freedom remains hotly debated.

Having spoken recently at the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy’s (RASP) second annual RASP Public Conversation, Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker (Lecturer, Trinity College Theological School) holds a unique and comprehensive perspective on the nation’s future of religious liberty.

Melbourne Catholic’s Toby Ward spoke to Dr Whitaker in the week following RASP’s event about where the Ruddock review is and what to expect from it, Australia’s need for a Human Rights Act, and how Christians of all denominations should approach the topic of religious freedom.

Toby: What was this year's RASP conversation about?

Dr Whitaker: The event was about religious freedom. It gave us a chance to have a bit of a conversation about what the issues are and look at the variety of Christian responses.

Our event was scheduled with the hope that it would be a few weeks after the report’s findings were released. There seems to be some debate as to how much of the report will be made public but it was a good opportunity to foster public conversation.

For people who might be unsure, where is the Ruddock review?

Well, the review committee has finished its work and the review is sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk. There is some speculation about who it will be passed to next, whether it will go to another committee or if and when it’ll be made public. The reality is we don’t know the answer to that.

Why is it contentious as to whether it will or won’t be made public?

I think it may be contentious – and I can’t speak as to why the government does or does not want to make it public – because depending on what happens with it, we need to know where the lobbying voices are coming from.

There were more than 16,000 submissions and there is an issue here of freedom of information and transparency on government reporting where this much time and effort has been put into something.

It’s possible that one of the recommendations, and I am speculating here, would be that Australia needs a Human Rights Act or Human Rights Charter, as we don’t have one right now. My sense is that the major parties in Australia are a little bit reluctant about that – not least because it would have some implications for how we’re treating refugees.

What can we expect to be included in the review? Will there be mention of a Human Rights Act?

It’s really hard to know. I do know that some of the mainstream and more conservative churches are asking for exemptions. So without having a Human Rights Act, the way religious freedoms currently work is that there are anti-discrimination laws and then religious groups get exemptions from them under certain circumstances. For instance, Catholics don’t ordain married people. So I think we’ll see churches and other religious groups asking for exemptions and it’s unclear where the committee’s report will come down on that.

Religious freedom and religious persecution are often linked together and some commentators have argued Australian Christians are experiencing oppression. What are your thoughts on this language?

I think we need to crack down on rhetoric that I think is coming from one or two groups who are saying, 'Christians are under attack now more than ever.'

I think that’s pretty disrespectful to Christians in other parts of the world who are definitely persecuted. They can’t go to church and can’t be seen to own a bible. Religious persecution is very real and sometimes a deadly thing but I don’t think that’s the case in Australia. So to talk like that is to invoke a rhetoric that is quite hyperbolic.

What do you think the future holds for the religious liberty debate in Australia?

My own opinion is that our current religious freedom laws are sufficient and that any new areas will need to be negotiated on a case by case basis. I think the more serious conversation to have within Australia’s churches isn’t about rights because the language of rights gets really problematic.

Some Christians are entrenching and drawing lines to protect themselves rather than recognising how we need to be in a world that is increasingly pluralistic and no longer so clearly Christian.

We need to maintain our own identity but in a way that remains loving and gracious to those who may be different or hold different views on things.
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