WHEN senator George Brandis was Australia’s attorney-general five years ago he shocked the nation by declaring that people had a “right to be a bigot” while discussing section 18C of the federal Racial Discrimination Act.
A robust public discourse around freedom of speech ensued, and section 18C was ultimately left alone.
But freedom of speech is once again on the national agenda in the wake of Israel Folau’s sacking from Rugby Australia.
“The Israel Folau fiasco hit a nerve because it was a person with strong religious beliefs making a deeply offensive homophobic comment,” said NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBOD) president Lesli Berger.
“Whether or not that should have resulted in his dismissal by Rugby Australia is another matter.”
According to reports, some Coalition MPs have been emboldened by support from religious voters at the election and are pushing the government for far-reaching religious freedom provisions in forthcoming laws.
Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce wants laws to exempt religious beliefs from employment contracts – in effect giving legal protection to views such as those expressed on social media by Folau – that gay people and fornicators will go to hell.
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter is expected to present a Religious Discrimination Act to the Parliament as soon as July and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the election marked a “new dawn” on religious freedom. She called for a standalone Religious Freedom Act that would give greater legal heft to the demands set out by church leaders, Christian schools and other faith-based institutions.
JBOD will provide a forum for discussion on religious freedoms when it hosts former Australian attorney-general Philip Ruddock, who chaired the Prime Minister’s “Religious Freedom Review” which was handed down in May last year, at its June plenum.
Berger said this is an important topic.
“There are a number of areas in which Jewish beliefs and customs are unpalatable to segments of broader society, such as circumcision, animal slaughter methods, lack of gender diversity among rabbonim in Orthodox congregations etc. Do Orthodox people in our community feel vilified? It’s an issue we should certainly address,” Berger said.
The JBOD plenum will be held from 7.30pm on Tuesday, June 18 at the Sydney Jewish Museum Education Centre in Darlinghurst. Enquiries: (02) 9360 1600.