Sydney (Agenzia Fides) – Religious freedom and the public role of religion are essential to society and are a thermometer for testing the legal culture of a country. This is the opinion of Rocco Mimmo, a Sydney lawyer, Founder and President of the Ambrose Center for Religious Liberty, a prestigious cultural institution in Australia.
Yesterday, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN Offices in Geneva, stressed the importance of protecting religious freedom in the world right, as it is now infringed by prejudice and discrimination. Religions, Mimmo notes, especially the Catholic Church, can and must play a vital role in the public debate in Australia and elsewhere. Fides asked him the following questions:
In your opinion, what is the role of the Catholic Church in the debate on the religious freedom in Australia?
I believe freedom to manifest one's religion freely and openly in the public square is all important and to this end, the Catholic Church has a vital role to play in public debate. This is crucial, particularly at a time when the Federal Government's National Human Rights Consultation Committee has recommended Australia adopt a Human Rights Act. The “Brennan Committee”, as it is known, advocated a national Charter of Rights be adopted in October last year. But it now appears the Government has decided to put the implementation of human rights charter or act on hold.
Do you agree with this step of the Australian Government?
I believe rather than a “Charter of Rights,” Australia may end up with a “Parliamentary Committee” which will scrutinise Bills that come before the House for compatibility with international instruments on human rights.
Such an arrangement would pose far less of a threat to religious freedom: what has happened in Britain since the UK adopted a “Charter of Rights” in 1998 could be an example of why Australians should be wary of creating its own “Charter of Rights”.
Could you explain further?
Increasingly the Act in Britain has been interpreted as individual rights and the state and public authorities have been called on to mandate lifestyle choices in the name of equality and/or human rights. In a recent British debate on anti discrimination laws, one of the provisions left open centred around whether or not a religious institution could refuse to admit acknowledged homosexuals for priestly training.
Other interpretations of Britain's Charter of Rights have led to other troubling examples: the Anglican Church has been forced to employ a homosexual as a youth worker and pay him compensation for initially refusing him employment; an English nurse has been fired from her job after offering to say a prayer for the 78 year old woman she was caring for; the owner of a hairdressing salon (being) was ordered to employ a Muslim even though she kept her hair covered at all times as part of her religion.
How can one combat such distortions?
To combat instances such as these and cherry picking interpretations of a Bill of Rights, leaders from Australia's Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious communities, banded together to fight restrictions on religious freedoms (and in particular to voice their national Charter of Rights.) While freedom of religion and belief is affirmed throughout international law as a fundamental human right, in practice it can be treated as if it is a limited concession granted by the state to allow space for individual or organised eccentricities.
What does defense of religious freedom in society imply?
Within the anti-discrimination and rights regime the meaning of “equality” is that all people are considered equal, but what this means in reality is that individuals moved by religious beliefs and instinct to do charitable acts in the public interest along with religious institutions and communities become second class citizens, losing rights to manifest religious doctrine. This means there is a denial of what religions (and the priesthood) stand for. It results in religious inspired services such as adoption centres, foster care agencies, health care centres being forced to close down their public services because the law imposes on them a requirement to compromise their religious beliefs and to perform services which are in conflict with doctrinal and moral truths. Religious communities are thus moved into private spheres where they cannot speak up for what they stand for, nor can they influence public policy. If Catholics and other religions are to defend their diminishing freedoms, they must be able to speak in the public square as equals and take part in the public debate and have input into public policy. (PA) (Agenzia Fides 25/03/2010)