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My submission to the expert panel on religious freedom

The Expert Panel on Religious Freedom in Australia is taking submissions until 14 February 2018. Here’s my submission:Freedom

I am writing as a theological scholar, having received my doctorate from Durham University, UK, in 2012, where I studied the intersection of Jewish identity and the New Testament letter to the Romans.

I am concerned with the prospect that in Australia, religious views that are quite mainstream and consistent with the historic confessions of faith on which our religious institutions are founded, through ignorance or apathy, may become marginalised through the rhetoric of progressive scholars or politicians, in such a way that they are no longer considered valid or worthy of protection.

I refer first of all of an instance of this very thing happening in the UK. It is an example of religious marginalisation by a UK government official. A report on this instance with further links may be found here. Amanda Spielman, the head of UK schools inspectorate Ofsted, called for a “muscular liberalism” that “holds no truck for ideologies that want to close minds or narrow opportunity”. She named the Christian Institute as her key example of such an ideology. The Christian Institute, however, is not an extremist institution with such an extreme ideology as she describes; it is simply a conservative Christian group whose beliefs are entirely consistent with the Church of England as expressed in the 39 Articles of Religion and which seeks to advocate for traditional views. For such a high-ranking government official to name this organisation in such a way is a clear threat to freedom of religion. Sadly, I can confirm from my reading and communication with friends in the UK, that this is not an isolated incident but in fact seems to be becoming increasingly common there.

For a possible scenario of how this problem might occur in Australia, I refer to a news article in the ABC that was published during the same-sex marriage survey. The article sought to present a particular progressive and liberal reading of the Bible’s teaching on homosexualty under the heading of “What does the Bible really have to say?” This title of the article suggested (and the article in essence argued) that even conservative Christians, who according to the historic tenets of the Christian faith hold to the Bible as God’s word and have a high view of its authority and applicability, should hold the same view as the author with regard to same sex marriage; and strongly implied that if they hold to a traditional view on same-sex marriage they are simply not consistent and do not understand the Bible nor biblical scholarship. In other words, they are not really being Christian. As a biblical scholar, I responded on the ABC religion and ethics website, showing various scholarly problems with the original article. The point I wish to make here is not that debate should be silenced – of course all scholars should be entitled to publish and express opinions – but rather to demonstrate how easy it is for a traditional religious view (in this case a view on marriage) to be marginalised and presented as inconsistent with the Christian faith, even with the flimsiest of evidence and argumentation. If we are not careful in Australia, this kind of opinion-shaping might in the future lead to those in positions of power regarding religious views that were once mainstream and entirely consistent with historic tenets of faith as being inconsistent with those very tenets of faith, and thus disregarding them in any decisions about protecting religious freedom.

In other words, I am deeply concerned that we should be protecting the religious freedoms of all. Our legislators and decision makers should never assume that a particular religious faith can be defined simply by looking at the most vocal opinion-shapers within that faith. And because it is so easy for this to occur, legislation should be put in place to protect against it occurring. It is already demonstrably happening the UK, and I urge the Expert Panel to make recommendations that ensure that this does not happen in our own nation.

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