Education head urges Australians to defend religious liberty

Wednesday 13 August, 2014

The President of Campion College, Dr Ryan Messmore, urged Australians to be vigilant against the loss of their right to religious liberty when he spoke at Warrane on Wednesday 13 August 2014.

The head of Australia’s first Liberal Arts College, who was raised and educated primarily in the United States, argued that religious liberty was given “pride of place among all freedoms” by his nation’s founders and formed the “foundational bedrock of all other freedoms”.

“Generally, where you find religious freedom you also find the other freedoms (speech, press, assembly, etc.) protected,” he said.

“Today in the United States what seems to be taking place is that religious liberty is being watered down to an enfeebled freedom of worship.”

Dr Messmore is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and Duke University in the United States, and is a former research fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation, the largest research and education institution in Washington, DC. He has written for many leading newspapers and online new sites, including The Washington Times and The Australian.

He said that religious liberty in the US was being reduced to the right of individuals merely to profess faith and attend church services and that this process should serve as a warning to Australians. At the heart of the problem is a trend of religion having come to be viewed as something solely “private and trivial”.

“Things like prayer, meditation, the afterlife, preaching, psychological counselling are considered to be “religious” in nature, while other aspects of life are not,” he explained.

“The point to stress is that the privatisation of religion shapes views about religious freedom. …So religious freedom comes to apply to activities that that take place at special times and in special places, to what a Christian might do on a Sunday in a chapel or what a Jew might do on a Saturday in a synagogue.”

“The question is: ‘What about Monday afternoon?’ What about that same person on Monday afternoon working in a classroom or in a hospital or a place of commerce? Are people genuinely free to carry out their day-to-day activities and decisions in those sorts of arenas?”

Dr Messmore said that organisations like the Pew Research Centre in the United States have studied this question and  come to the conclusion that, in recent years, there have been increased levels of government restrictions as well as social hostilities towards religion in the US. This increase stemmed in part from anti-discrimination legislation, particularly legislation “regulating the intersection of religion and sexual orientation”.

“Anti-discrimination laws in the United States have begun to weaken Americans’ freedoms to operate small, privately held businesses, like mom-and-pop stores, according to their deeply held convictions,” he said.

An example was a case several years ago of a female photographer in New Mexico who started a small photography business and was sued  by a lesbian couple when she declined to photograph their same-sex commitment ceremony. The photographer referred the couple to another photographer, but she was found guilty of violating a non-discrimination law and was ordered to pay thousands of dollars in costs.

This sort of thing had happened on a much larger scale in 2006 when Catholic Charities, which operates an adoption agency based in Boston, refused to place children with same-sex couples because it would violate Catholic teaching. The state refused to grant Catholic Charities an exemption to serve people according to Church’s teachings and, thus, even though it placed more troubled children in homes than any other agency in Boston, it had to close its doors.

“The larger question is what kind of society we want our children to live in,” Dr Messmore said. “In the US it has now reached the point where private photographers and charities must pay a fine or go out of business in order to follow the tenets of their faith.”

“In short, the privatisation of religion has contributed to the narrowing of religious freedom in the public square.  .”

Another example of this trend involves ObamaCare, under which a mandate was passed by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring that all insurers in the US who offer group health insurance to their employees have to cover abortion-inducing drugs and sterilisation.

“Companies have to cover these items whether they violate their conscience or not,” Dr Messmore said.

“Many argue that this undermines the Constitution of the United States. … And there is no way out for religious employers; either they comply and violate their religious convictions or they stop providing health plans all-together, whereby they face a different fine.” .

“The penalty for failing to comply is $2,000 per employee per year. Catholic Charities employs 70,000 people, which means it would face a fine of $140 million per year.”  Some organisations can be fined $1.3 million per day.

While religious employers such as churches, synagogues, mosques, monasteries and religious orders were exempted from the mandate, organisations like faith-based hospitals, schools, and orphanages were not.

“So there is a religious freedom safeguard for groups that preach about Christian charity, but not for groups that operate Christian charities,” Dr Messmore said. 

“This reveals  a view of religion as something having to do merely with doctrines and beliefs, something only to be preached about and celebrated in seminaries and worship services. It therefore ignores the religious identity of many other kinds of activities, careers and institutions - in short, the social realities of religious faith.”

More recently, the Obama Administration agreed to offer not a full exemption but an “accommodation” to non-profits  that have religious objections to the mandate and hold themselves out to the public as religious organisations.  The accommodation allows the employer’s contract with a health insurance company not to mention contraception coverage, but the employer must fill out a form that authorizes the insurance company to provide no-cost contraception coverage to its female employees (and dependents) of childbearing age.  

“Many have argued that this keeps the employers complicit in an activity which the Church tells them is immoral,” Dr Messmore pointed out.

However, a recent Supreme Court decision reviewed the mandate in a case brought by Hobby Lobby, a family-owned chain ofarts-and-crafts stores. The Court ruled that the mandate violated the religious freedom of for-profit companies.  Messmore noted that the decision “generated an enormous amount of heat,” indignation  and public debate.

These legal cases in the States suggest that Australians need to work “quickly and diligently” to promote a more robust understanding of religious liberty - “one that protects the ability of individuals to live out faith in all aspects of life and protects the proper authority and function of mediating institutions”. Dr Messmore warned that if governments interfere with the operations  of religious groups, they risk undermining what makes those groups effective at serving people in the first place. 

“A wise government cannot penalise or restrict the particular practises or decisions of an institution and then expect it to operate with the same motivation and potency,” he said.
“To borrow an image from CS Lewis: the state cannot castrate institutions of their faith-based elements and then expect the geldings to be as fruitful for the common good.”

Dr Messmore urged Australians to be aware of how notions of religion can be embedded in public policies and encouraged them not to take religious liberty for granted.

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