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Reflection from the President

Bp PHx150Discussion with Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission at the gathering of National Church Leaders in Sydney on 24 September 2019  

In the 8th Century, St. Bede writes of a certain esteemed leader who would sit for long periods, carefully pondering what might be done next.

The necessity for patient discernment now was evident when National Church leaders met with Edward Santow on 24 September.

The context was our consideration of how best to respond to the draft Religious Discrimination Bill, released by the Attorney General, Christian Porter, on 29 August 2019.

Given that the Attorney General expects that a final draft Bill will be presented to Federal Parliament in October, this was a timely discussion.

Edward Santow took us briefly through the history of international nurturing of Human Rights law, especially in the period since World War Two.

He commended this legislation, in large measure, noting how it evidences ‘best practice’ in other jurisdictions and affirming that Australia has been able to benefit from work done elsewhere.

His concern was with “ten percent” of the draft, which he characterised as novel, radical and capable of having unintended subsequent consequences.

In our discussion, those of us who had met the Prime Minister in Sydney on 5 August recalled two important conclusions:

The first was the PM’s emphasis on patience with this matter so that the legislation had broad support, including bi- partisan support.

The second conclusion recalled, was that this legislation and any like it, needs a generous and gracious culture ready to receive it.

Laws about freedom of religion need a culture ready to receive them.

Are we at this place of reception?

My reflection, having been at these important meetings and having followed the media discourse, is that we are not yet there.

There are fears and misunderstandings which need careful, facilitated conversation.

On the one hand, there are religious people concerned that the legislation will not protect their ability to ‘preach, teach and heal’ in the way they feel called and have done times past, freely.

On the other hand , there are groups that feel the ten percent extra in this draft legislation, may continue a pattern of marginalisation which ,historically, has been a cause of suffering.( There are reports thus , that members of the LGBTQ communities have been re -traumatised by the public discourse about this legislation).

Edward Santow was very affirming of the broad, positive work the Church does in the Australian community. His own background gives him first -hand experience of compassionate Church work for marginalised people. He conveyed a concern he hears, that the Church is being stereotyped as only concerned about “sex and speech”.

Be that as it may be, I came away from our meeting really concerned to “hasten slowly” with this vital draft Bill.

Can we arrange facilitated conversations between groups who have various fears? Can we clarify any misunderstandings? Can we make sure the final draft does not include detail which will have unintended consequences, when the legislation is finally implemented?

Can we, thereafter, share in a broad educative process to enhance understanding and reception of religious freedom legislation?

In the period ahead, I hope to help find some answers to these questions. In the process, your responses to this note will be much appreciated.

Like St. Bede conveyed, there is virtue in a period of further careful and prayerful discernment, as we ponder what might be best for everyone.


Bishop Philip Huggins

NCCA President 

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