As most of you will know, the Australian Government is holding a major inquiry into religious freedom legislation (the Ruddock Review). Submissions officially closed on 14 Feb but you may be able to get in a late submission on request.

Freedom For Faith put in a major, wide-ranging submission. Here’s my much shorter but hopefully appropriately person one.

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Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the review of legislation concerning religious freedom.

I am a minister of the Presbyterian Church and a member of that church’s Gospel, Society and Culture (GS&C) Committee. That committee’s task is to assist the church to engage with issues of public, “secular” interest, e.g. religious freedom.

I am an Australian citizen but was born in Sri Lanka. Over the last few years, religious violence has erupted sporadically in Sri Lanka. See, e.g., the reports by:

  • The BBC on Buddhist attacks on Christians in 2014;
  • Al Jazeera on violence between Muslims and Buddhists in 2014.

I was not personally involved in these, or any other incident of religiously-motivated violence in Sri Lanka. However, it being my motherland, I still love that country. These incidents of religiously-motivated violence grieve me.

Furthermore, these incidents reinforced my understanding that certain forms of religion may be authentic expressions of sincerely held faith, but nevertheless socially damaging and therefore worthy of legal censure. In the cases noted above, those who held a nationalistic form of Buddhism were sincerely motivated to use intimidation and violence to cleanse Sri Lankan society of non-Buddhists. I reflected on these issues in an article I wrote for the Lausanne movement for global mission.

Therefore:

  1. As a Christian, a minister of the church, and a member of the GS&C committee, I have a personal interest in maximising religious freedom;
  2. But as a native of Sri Lanka, I am aware that certain forms of sincere religious belief can motivate violence which is socially disruptive.

I therefore urge you to keep the following principals in mind in your review of Australian religious freedom legislation:

  1. Religion is by nature public, not merely private. Religious beliefs deal with the fundamental realities of the universe and therefore define what a person holds to be ultimate truth. Whoever or whatever a person holds to be their “God” or “Gods” is the ultimate authority for that person’s life. As the determinant of ultimate truth and authority, religion therefore defines how a person thinks and acts in every aspect of their life, in “public” as well as “private”. This ultimacy is one aspect of what it means to “worship” “God” or “the Gods”.
  2. In this sense, religious freedom is beyond legislation, because legislation is an expression of human authority. A common theme among all religions is that God or the Gods have authority over humanity. Therefore, divine commands, simply by their divine origin, surpass human commands. This is why religion has such motivational power. If human laws contradict divine laws, a sincere religious person will simply disobey the human laws to the extent they contradict divine laws. This obedience is another aspect of a religious person’s “worship” of “God” or “the Gods”.
  3. If the contradiction between human laws and divine laws is extensive then it will force this disobedience by sincere religious people to be more publicly visible. E.g.: banning certain articles of religious clothing will not stop people who sincerely believe their God commands them to wear that clothing from doing so. They will continue to wear the clothing because they are confident that their God will repay them for any legal actions against them. Civil disobedience may become honourable martyrdom, which they offer to God / the Gods as an aspect of their worship.
  4. If the contradiction between human laws and divine laws is deep – if the civil law expresses a form of human nature and human society which profoundly contradict what a person believes their religion teaches about humanity – then the religious person will view the human laws, and the society that created them, as evil, under the influence of evil supernatural powers, fundamentally in rebellion against their God/s, and in need of saving. This saving reformation may be another aspect of religious worship.
  5. Such a deep conflict of anthropological assumptions will predispose religious people to hold a negative view of Australian society in general – even the aspects of society which do not contradict their religion. A sincere religious person will thus be motivated to reform the whole of Australian society so as to save it from its decadence. Heavy restrictions on religious freedom may motivate reactionary attempts to enforce theocracy.
  6. The public sphere is a place of diversity, not homogeneity. People who believe different things need to be able to interact in public.
  7. “Peace” and “tolerance” are necessary for the public sphere to be a safe place for diversity. This peace and tolerance cannot be limited to conditions of homogeneity, where everyone believes the same thing. Peace and tolerance occur when people who believe different things interact verbally about those differences without fear of being subject to physical violence for their beliefs.
  8. Verbal contradiction of a person’s beliefs is not the same as physical violence against that person. For the public sphere to be a place of diversity, those who interact in it need to know their beliefs deeply enough, and have sufficient confidence in their beliefs, to be able to respond to contradictory views with confidence instead of fear.
  9. One essential element of achieving a diverse public sphere characterised by peace and tolerance is to maximise public religious freedoms – that is, to minimise the extent to which civil laws limit public religious self-expression, and minimise the depth to which civil laws express a particular view of human nature and/or human society.
  10. Such minimal restrictions on religious self-expression will maximise the possibility that sincere religious people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, will experience Australian society as a place of welcome and hospitality – even if they hold mutually contradictory beliefs.
  11. That sense of welcome is most likely to predispose them to celebrate, protect, and advance other aspects of Australian society which do not contradict their religious beliefs. Religious freedom is most likely to create happy, committed citizens.
  12. One way to demonstrate this hospitality to religious people is to enact strong protections for at least four areas of religious self-expression:
    1. The freedom to speak publicly on religious matters, including, but not limited to, presenting
      1. A verbal, rational argument for following one’s religion – what Christians call “evangelism”;
      2. Perspectives on public matters – “politics” – which are explicitly informed by one’s religious convictions;
    2. The freedom to wear clothing, jewellery, ornaments etc. which expresses one’s religion;
    3. The freedom to form and join associations which express the corporate nature of that religion – churches, mosques, temples etc.;
    4. The freedom for those religious associations to conduct private and public activities in ways consistent with their religious beliefs, including, but not limited to:
      1. Restricting membership of that religious association to people who share those religious beliefs;
      2. Conducting public activities where non-co-religionists are invited to join their religion.
  1. This hospitality also needs to be protected through the prohibition of attempts to advance or suppress religion through physical coercion. Verbal disagreement and debate is qualitatively different from physical intimidation and violence. The Buddhist attempts to suppress Christianity and Islam in Sri Lanka noted above flowed from sincerely held beliefs that faithful Buddhism required cleansing Sri Lanka of non-Buddhists. That kind of belief and behaviour should not be welcome in Australia.
  2. As far as I know, the only people who have recently sought to use violence to suppress religion in Australia have been people associated with the Yes campaign in last year’s same-sex marriage national opinion poll. The most significant example I know of was the violence perpetrated against a Vote No campaign display sponsored by the Catholic Society at Sydney University. Speaking in favour of sexual freedoms and sexual self-expression is welcome. Violence to intimidate those who disagree is not. As mentioned above, such crudity only reinforces to religious people that people who hold that view – in this case, the proponents of same-sex marriage – are corrupt and depraved, and that a society which validates such a view is corrupt and depraved and in need of religious reform and “salvation”.

Thank you again for the opportunity to contribute to this review. I look forward to Australia continuing to be the kind of free, tolerant, peaceful country that motivated my parents and I to immigrate here.

Kind regards,

Kamal Weerakoon