Sydney Archbishop addresses NSW Parliament on Religious Freedom

By Monica Doumit, 16 November 2020
(L-R) Tania Mihailuk MLA, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Mark Latham MLC, Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian, Scott Farlow MLC, Robyn Preston MLA and Gabrielle Upton MLA gather after the parliamentary committee hearing. Image: Monica Doumit/The Catholic Weekly.


With fellow Christian leaders, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP addressed state MPs to bat for religious freedom in New South Wales.

Addressing a New South Wales parliamentary committee on Friday 6 November, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP defended religious freedom and called for loopholes allowing discrimination against Christians in NSW to be closed. Human rights are not a ‘zero-sum game,’ he said.

His comments came as he appeared before the Joint Select Committee on the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020.

Human rights are not a ‘zero-sum game’

The private member’s bill garnered significant public interest, with close to 20,000 submissions made to the inquiry, the overwhelming majority – 13,200 – in favour of the bill.

It is currently illegal in New South Wales to discriminate against a person on the basis of age, race, disability, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, Archbishop Fisher said.

However, he told the MPs, it is not illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of religious belief or activity; the bill, moved by Mark Latham MLC, would remedy that imbalance by providing equal protections to people of faith.

He said it was important that religious organisations be protected as well; unlike many of the other rights protected in anti-discrimination law, religion is unique in that it manifests in community with others.

This is primarily through religious worship but also through the operation of ‘religion-inspired’ schools and universities, hospitals and aged care facilities, charity stores and other social welfare agencies, he said.

“We’re saying that part of freedom of religion is the freedom to manifest your religion, that is clear in all the international instruments,” the Archbishop said. “Religion is not just something you have to keep inside your head and never express or manifest.

Important that religious organisations be protected

“People manifest it in things like the institutions and organisations they set up, schools, hospitals, welfare services, parishes and so on, and that will often include operations that include goods and services.”

Appearing alongside Archbishop Fisher was the Primate of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand, His Eminence Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian.

An unprecedented level of collaboration between the Catholic and Orthodox churches saw a joint submission made to the Committee by the Catholic Bishops of New South Wales and the Bishops of the Australasian-Middle East Christian Apostolic Churches.

Collaboration between Catholic and Orthodox churches

Critics of the bill also spoke at the two-day hearing, including the director of the Buddhist Council of NSW, Bhante Akāliko Bhikkhu, who said it would increase discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Archbishop said that the aim was the reconciling of supposedly conflicting rights.

Rather than insisting on a ‘winner takes all’ approach to human rights that viewed protection of one right as necessitating the diminishment of another, we should seek to protect all of them, he said.

Meanwhile, LGBTI Catholics, for example, were as concerned about their religious freedom as non-LGBTI Catholics and he did not want to see it undermined, he said.

Legislating for religious freedom was about ‘making space’ for each other and included the need to allow people to express a religious belief outside the workplace without the threat of losing their job or facing other discriminatory treatment.

Employers should not regard themselves as owning the souls of employees, as if they are free to control their minds and their speech in every part of life,” Archbishop Fisher told MPs, although a person’s life outside of a religious-based workplace did have a bearing in some situations, for example, the leader of a faith community or a school principal was expected to live in a way that did not undermine their authentic witness to those communities.

The protection of Catholic institutions assisted minority faith groups as well

Archbishop Najarian echoed Archbishop Fisher’s words and told the committee that it was important to the Armenian Orthodox community that Catholic institutions were given the legal right to operate in accordance with their beliefs.

As a small proportion of the population in New South Wales, he explained, the community did not have the same presence in terms of schools, hospitals and aged care facilities as the Catholic Church.

Many Armenians, he said, chose Catholic institutions for education and health care, making it clear to the Committee that the protection of Catholic institutions assisted minority faith groups as well. The Committee is due to provide its final report by March 2021.

By Monica Doumit. Reproduced with permission from The Catholic Weekly, the news publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.


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