The churches' objection to human rights

Michael Pearce SC

One of the most troubling developments in human rights in recent times has been the antagonistic stance adopted by many within the Christian churches. The Australian Christian Lobby was the leading organisation opposed to a national charter of rights during the recent national Human Rights Consultation.

It organised submissions to the committee against a national charter and arranged for its members to be present at many consultation meetings to argue against a charter.

At a public meeting which was part of the consultation, committee chair Father Frank Brennan explained the opposition this way. He said that many within the Christian churches perceive a vast Victorian-based conspiracy against organised religion.

The conspiracy comprises the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, the Abortion Law Reform Act, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and the moves to narrow religious exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act. Liberty Victoria is seen to be at the centre of this ungodly conspiracy.

Like most conspiracies, this one does not stand up to much scrutiny. First of all, Liberty Victoria was one of the few organisations which opposed the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. It did so on free speech grounds and has also opposed federal vilification legislation for similar reasons.

The churches’ complaint about the Victorian Act has much to do with the Catch the Fire Ministries case, which ran for months in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeal Tribunal, was taken successfully on appeal and did little but entrench hostile attitudes on each side.

One of Liberty’s reasons for opposing the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act was the concern that it would have just this sort of result. So the truth of the matter is that we have much in common with the churches on this legislation.

On the other hand, Liberty’s support for the Abortion Law Reform Act is at odds with some Christian opinion, especially in the Catholic Church. However, Liberty has never opposed the application of the Charter of Human Rights to that legislation, including the controversial section requiring doctors to provide effective referrals if they will not perform an abortion. The reason why the Charter does not apply is because of s 48. This little known section expressly excludes the Charter’s operation to any law concerning abortion. Liberty did not seek the inclusion of s 48 in the Charter and sees no reason for it.

Like many in the Catholic Church, Liberty would welcome the application of the Charter to this legislation.

The churches’ opposition to the Victorian Charter and its opposition to a national charter is based on the belief that human rights restrict religious freedom. This is not correct. Amongst the most important human rights in the Victorian Charter are freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief (s 14) and freedom of expression (s 15). These rights explicitly support the free exercise of religion.

In Victoria, the Charter now requires that legislation be read wherever possible in accordance with human rights. As a result, the operation of legislation like the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act is likely to be circumscribed. Its impact on the free exercise of religion should be significantly reduced thanks to the Charter. So the churches should, logically, support a national charter of rights.

An even more important reason why the churches should support a national charter of rights is this: anecdotal evidence about the operation of the Victorian Charter suggests that its most important effect has been in the delivery of public services. Victorian public servants are now obliged by the Charter to respect human rights in the performance of their duties. The most vulnerable and underprivileged in our community are usually also those most reliant on government services. Many stories are emerging about the transformation in the way these services are now being delivered in Victoria because of the requirement to respect human rights.

To give just one example: a public hospital refused emergency services to asylum seekers because they were not eligible for Medicare benefits. But when told of its obligations under the Charter the hospital reversed its policy and provided emergency services to an asylum seeker.

This and many similar stories are collected here: They show how the lot of many vulnerable and underprivileged people has been improved because their human rights must be respected by those responsible for their basic needs.

The Christian churches have a fine record of pastoral care, especially in recent years in the areas of Aboriginal rights, support for refugees, the homeless and the needy. There is an obvious convergence between the churches’ pastoral role and the promotion of human rights for the most needy and vulnerable. The churches’ concern for the needy and vulnerable should therefore translate to support for a national charter so the gains that are emerging in Victoria can spread nationally.

There are no doubt many hardliners within the churches who will remain impervious to this logic. But most church members must be amenable to it if only the message could get through. Fortunately, there are signs that it is starting to.

Bishop McIntyre put a balanced and reasoned view about exemptions to the Equal Opportunity Act in The Age on September 29: An excellent website has been established promoting human rights awareness among Christians: However, more needs to be done.

Because of the importance of this issue, Liberty Victoria has invited the Rev Tim Costello to give this year’s Allen Missen Oration, following the Annual General Meeting on Monday November 23. He will speak on the subject of human rights and the churches. It promises to be a most interesting occasion.