I began thinking seriously about the issue of freedom of religion in Australia just over ten years ago. Through David Palmer (PCV) the Presbyterian Church was involved in setting up the organisation Freedom for Faith to promote freedom of religion from a Christian perspective. At that time, it seemed to be preparation for possible future developments. Freedom of religion was threatened in other places around the world, but not in Australia.

Things have changed in a decade.

The high-profile incidents involving Israel Folau and Andrew Thorburn were the clash of elite sports, big business, religious convictions and views of homosexuality. A number of other Australians have lost positions because of their religious views — often connected with LGBT issues. (The website of the Human Rights Law Alliance catalogues thirty cases: https://www.hrla.org.au/our-cases).

Christian teaching and witness have been subject to complaints under anti-discrimination and anti-vilification legislation. Even when the complaint is not upheld, this is stressful and can be financially costly. The threat of complaints has a chilling effect as people self-censor their public expressions of faith and moral convictions.

Many Australian workplaces expect employees to affirm and celebrate LGBT causes, making it difficult for religious believers who have moral objections to homosexuality and transgender expression.

Professionals in medicine, education and social work can be required to participate in practices that conflict with their convictions and consciences. Often legislation for abortion or Voluntary Assisted Dying makes no allowance for conscientious objections or has inadequate provisions.

Recent Anti-conversion legislation exposes Christians to complaints and even prosecution if they offer pastoral care and support for people seeking to live according to their biological sex or trying to resist homosexual temptations. Even the expressions of biblical convictions about sex and gender may be a basis for prosecution.

Christian institutions have so far been granted exemptions under anti-discrimination legislation which has allowed them to adopt enrollment and employment policies consistent with their mission. As these exemptions are reduced or removed it is increasingly difficult for institutions to continue their Christian mission. Schools that require teachers to hold to and live consistently with a doctrinal and moral position are exposed to complaints under anti-discrimination legislation.

Churches seeking to hire venues such as schools or other public facilities sometimes face significant levels of suspicion and even opposition.

It is not only Christians who face these issues. Australia has seen a rising level of antisemitic incidents in recent years. Muslims have also faced abuse in the streets and opposition to building mosques.

We can overreact to these developments. Christians and followers of other religions have a great deal of freedom in Australia. The pressure is primarily related to views of sex, gender and marriage and we are free to believe, teach and live in many ways. The killings and violence directed against Christians in Pakistan in the last few months put our fears of persecution into perspective.

Nevertheless, believers who have faced complaints or lost jobs, school leaders who are working through the implications of recent legislation, and church leaders who are deciding what to make public from their teaching all feel real pressure. It is getting harder for Christians to make their faith public and to participate fully in society.

One proper response is to recognize that this is a standard experience of Christian believers. Jesus said we can expect to be treated the way he was: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn 15:18-20). Rejection, mocking, exclusion and prosecution are not a disaster for Christians. Jesus calls us to rejoice when we are treated that way for his sake (Matt 5:11-12). Christian churches and gospel ministries often flourish when they face opposition from society and authorities. The pressure should prompt us to pray for faithfulness, courage and grace.

At the same time, there is a place for advocating for freedom of religion. When the apostles were arrested, imprisoned and put on trial they took the opportunity to proclaim Christ, and they also sought to defend themselves for the sake of mission. Paul frequently appealed to his Roman citizenship to secure his safety and freedom to preach (Acts 16:37–38; 21:39; 22:25–29; 23:27). Similarly, we should encourage governments to protect freedom of religion.

We are told to pray for authorities so that we may live godly lives in peace and quiet (1 Tim 2:1-3). Paul says that this pleases God who wants all people to be saved. John Stott comments that “the logic of this seems to be that peaceful conditions facilitate the propagation of the gospel. … The ultimate object of our prayers for national leaders, then, is that in the context of the peace they preserve, religion and morality can flourish, and evangelism go forward without interruption” (John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus IVP, 2001). That peace will include toleration of the church and other religions.

There are several reasons why Christians should support freedom of religion, not just for us but for everyone.

Religion is a basic aspect of human life. Humans are unavoidably religious, we feel gratitude and wonder, we seek mystery and meaning. God has planted in us a desire to worship him. As sinners, we turn away from worshipping the true and living God (Rom 1:18-22) but do not stop being religious. We express our religiosity in ways that do not honour God, yet he allows the freedom to seek and find him (Acts 17:27) and to avoid him. On the other hand, neither genuine religious convictions nor sincere faith in Jesus are produced by coercion or compulsion. Allowing freedom to express religious convictions and practices treats people with dignity. All of this argues for giving everyone a broad freedom to exercise religion.

Freedom of religion is more than freedom to worship and belief; it includes freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. These rights are important for individuals and for communities — religious and non-religious.

In a pluralist culture with many groups who are religious and non-religious, the common civic good is served by transparency. If groups are not free to publicly express their faith they are likely to withdraw into their own enclaves or conceal their deepest convictions from public scrutiny. This creates a more fragmented society in which people do not understand each other. Nothing is gained by limiting freedom of religion for the sake of social harmony, since this simply breeds resentment and disharmony. It is far better to allow people to express their faith, or lack of faith, as fully as possible. Christianity, as a missionary faith, welcomes the opportunity to understand and engage with the beliefs and practices of other faiths, and to be able to share its own.

Christians should support freedom of religion, not just because it benefits them and protects Christian ministry and mission. It is also good for the whole of society.

For more information about freedom of religion see the website of Freedom of Faith, an organisation supported by the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

– John McClean