Wies Schuiringa, New South Wales Regional Meeting[1]

Mark Latham, member of the Legislative Council of the NSW Parliament for the One Nation Party has tabled “An Act to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to make discrimination on the ground of a person’s religious beliefs or activities unlawful, and for related purposes.

Several members of the Executive Committee of the NSW Ecumenical Council wrote a dissenting submission in response to the proposed Act, and the majority of the members of the Executive Committee supported this submission. However, some of the Heads of the 16 members churches of the NSW Ecumenical Council were not in unity with the dissenting submission. It was known that there was some strong lobbying by the Anglican and Catholic Dioceses of Sydney, and among a range of churches in support of the draft Act. The Catholic Dioceses in NSW are not a member of the NSW Ecumenical Council. (The federal draft religious anti-discrimination bill has been put aside for the time being, as the government is pre-occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and more pressing matters of the day.)

I was part of the soul- searching group at the Executive Committee of the NSW Ecumenical Council deciding what to do about lodging or not lodging our submission, as we did not want to create disharmony between the churches and the Council but also wanted to speak our truth. As somebody in our group often says: “how to be wise as the serpent and gentle as the dove”. My contribution to the soul-searching was as follows:

A silent Meeting for Worship was a good time for me this morning to reflect on our dilemma. I often reflect on “what does the Lord require of me: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your Lord”. And then a Friend stood up and spoke about Jesus turning the tables in the temple and what that meant for her in her life, and had she at times looked away when she could have spoken up or intervened. The Spirit works in wondrous ways on a Sunday morning in Wahroonga, even when there were only seven of us present.

I realised that I am, and perhaps we are all, caught between the two Bible texts that are so contemporary. Would it be acceptable to the churches that do not support our submission, if we make the submission as individuals and not as a Council? Would the staff members who process these submissions understand this?  We can explain our action at the next Executive meeting. We are not shying away from what we know needs to be done but not creating chaos in the temple either.

After some further consultation, it was acceptable for the Heads of the member churches “not-in-unity” that the submission was lodged with the following caveat: “A submission from the majority of members of the Executive Committee of the NSW Ecumenical Council, recognising that it does not necessarily reflect the views of all member churches, some of which will have made their own submissions”.

Individual members of the Executive Committee were encouraged to also lodge the submission or lodge their own submission.

Some excerpts from the submission by the NSW Ecumenical Council:

“As people of faith we are concerned about the rights and freedoms that are essential to a civil, democratic society, that recognises and honours the dignity of every person.  If the Church is to be, as Christ calls it to be, a beacon for grace, truth and reconciliation, it cannot live in a ghetto designed only for self-preservation and self-congratulation.”  (The Reverend Dr Ray Williamson OAM, President of the NSWEC)

“A Christian hankering after prestige and power is not something [new].  Nor is it in any way peculiar to Australia.  It runs like a dark thread through the long and chequered history of the church. … The craving for power and prestige is natural.  It should never surprise us.  Even when it’s wearing the trappings of religion.

“[The] gospel invites us to think some revolutionary thoughts.  To disentangle ourselves from worldly notions of power and prestige, and to rediscover serving, caring, as the name of the game”.  (The Reverend David Gill AM) [David Gill is a retired Uniting Church Minister of the Word, a former General Secretary, Uniting Church in Australia, 1980-88, and a former General Secretary, Australian Council of Churches/National Council of Churches in Australia, 1988-2001.]

These quotations capture the rationale for this submission: the Christian community, the Church, is not seeking power and prestige for itself, but is seeking to place religious rights in the context of advocating for all human rights to be secured within a civil and democratic society.

Australia is a pluralistic society where the separation of Church and State has led to a generally cohesive and flourishing society, for both secular and religious people, but despite this there is a perception that religious freedoms have been eroded.

Against that perception, however, the Ruddock Review confirmed that Christians and other major religious groups in Australia suffer very little religious discrimination and almost no persecution.  Whilst his report deals with Australia as a whole, in our view his comments reflect the realities in NSW.

The present Anti-Discrimination Act, 1977 (NSW) contains a careful balance in its provisions that provides some exemptions for religious organisations in relation to particular issues. These are sufficient to protect the rights of those people professing a religion without trampling on the rights of others with whom they may disagree. It is not necessary to extend such exemptions and defences. They represent an appropriate way of dealing with such issues in a pluralistic society. They have served NSW well for an extended period.

A NSW Charter of Rights could be a piece of parliamentary legislation, not a constitutional bill.  There are a number of charters of Human Rights already: in Victoria, ACT and Queensland (coming into effect very soon).  They articulate our rights and Australia’s obligations to uphold them under the international human rights treaties and conventions that Australia has signed – by no means least, the obligation to protect the rights of all vulnerable people.  A Charter of Rights would be developed by the NSW Parliament, like all other laws, and can be changed by the parliament.  It would explicitly outline what the Government is required to do to protect and uphold and promote the rights affirmed by the Charter.  It would be a means of securing a society in which everyone is included, thereby building a more civil society.

[1] Wies is vice-president of the NSW Ecumenical Council


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