Challenges to the free exercise of religious faith in Australia

Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the University School of Law, Sydney with Barry Bussey, Director, Legal Affairs, Canadian Council of Christian Charities.

4 November 2015

Religious freedom is a right which is frequently curtailed in Australia despite the nation’s appearance as a model of religious tolerance, according to a leading academic from The University of Notre Dame Australia.

Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the University’s School of Law, Sydney, believes religion is at the crossroads in Australia with religious rights gradually being eroded.

Professor Quinlan was speaking at the BYU International Center For Law And Religion Studies’ 22nd Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, held at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. He delivered a paper entitled Religion, Law and Social Stability in Australia.

Professor Quinlan told the conference the challenges to the free exercise of religious faith in Australia were real, and for many Australians, State laws had become a de facto morality. He added that the legal protection of religious freedom was tenuous in Australia and was frequently curtailed in preference to the promotion of the recognition of new rights and the restriction of the free exercise of existing rights through legislation and developments in the common law.

In support of the protection of religious freedom Professor Quinlan spoke not only of the inherent religious impulse and the dignity of the person but also, specifically in an Australian context, of the huge contribution that the religious faiths had made throughout Australian history to the nation. He referred to the irreplaceable infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, aged care facilities, universities, charities and clubs which had been established by people of faith solely because of their faith and only existed because of religious faith. For these reasons he argued that “Religious freedom is not only a good thing for individuals but it is a good thing for nations. Religious freedom is not a case of special pleading.”

“A feature of Australian society is the fact that law by default is considered by many as the source of morality,” Professor Quinlan said.

“The consequences of recognising this fact are profound. Changes in legislation, judicial or prosecutorial practice can present strong temptations for people to engage even in acts which were generally considered immoral by previous generations.

“General acceptance of conduct which was generally recognised as immoral by previous generations can quickly follow. It is only necessary to mention divorce, contraception, drug use, abortion, in vitro fertilisation and euthanasia to recognise this trend in Australia and elsewhere in the Western world.”

Professor Quinlan also highlights what former High Court judge Dyson Heydon QC has described as a new anti-Catholic movement, particularly among the intellectuals, with anti-Catholicism in Australia “the racism of the intellectuals”.

“Australia’s popular media is often openly antagonistic to Christianity and to Catholicism and Catholic moral and ethical values in particular, and there is an ever diminishing emphasis in teaching about religion and on equipping people to make sound moral choices,” Professor Quinlan said.

Professor Quinlan said if Christianity was to survive as a significant force, let alone to flourish again, those who cared must act, and act soon; otherwise, the label ‘Post-God nation’ will become increasingly apt.

For the full transcript of Professor Quinlan’s address, please go to Religion, Law and Social Stability in Australia - Draft Speech

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