This is how it could go: Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom inquiry recommends a law to allow discrimination in the name of religious conscience; to fight off new rightwing parties and wedge Labor; the Turnbull government introduces a religious freedom bill; to smooth over divisions in its own ranks Labor waves the bill through.
It would be John Howard’s 2004 same-sex marriage ban all over again (right down to Ruddock again playing a key role). Like that ban, religious freedom legislation would be a monumental setback for the LGBTI community, re-enshrining discrimination against us and sparking another decade-long campaign for equality.
Before I explain why I fear the worst, I should clarify what I mean by “religious freedom”. I don’t mean the old, noble Enlightenment belief that no one should be forced to hold a set of beliefs or disadvantaged because of their beliefs. I’m talking about the Trump-era, nothing-means-what-it-used-to definition: discriminating against and disadvantaging minorities in the name of religion, especially if they are LGBTI people.
In the US it began with bakers refusing to sell same-sex couples wedding cakes (leading to litigation currently before the supreme court), but in some states religious freedom has expanded to allow refusal of commercial or government-funded services to anyone who doesn’t fit a service provider’s religious views.
In a direct affront to the values of Voltaire, religious freedom has come to mean religious privilege.
My pessimism about the possible outcome of the Ruddock inquiry has many sources.
The inquiry was a way to manoeuvre marriage equality legislation around the religious right’s narrative that the reform would somehow cost religious people their rights. But that narrative was never intended to stop marriage equality. It was developed in the US as a way to re-entrench discrimination in the wake of the 2015 supreme court’s pro-marriage equality decision.
The religious freedom movement is to marriage equality what segregation was to slavery: a redoubt for prejudice. The contemporary “religious freedom” narrative was developed precisely for the situation Australia is now in.
Now that marriage equality is law in Australia, the religious right is no longer rhetorically hobbled by only being able to predict that the sky will fall in. It can say the sky has fallen in.
Which brings me to my second reason to be fearful.
In the absence of any actual disputes between same-sex couples and bakers or florists, the religious right is manufacturing them. Tasmanian wedding service providers tell me they know of Catholic photographers who have closed their businesses because they fear being taken to the Anti-Discrimination Commission if they refuse their services to marrying same-sex couples.
To me this looks like an overreaction. It also looks like anti-LGBTI prejudice rather than religious sentiment, given Catholic photographers didn’t shut up shop when divorce was made legal.
But it’s easy to see how these cases, when finally made public, could capture the imagination of enough social conservatives, libertarians and people of faith to cower Liberal moderates and empower Labor’s Catholics.
Another serious concern is the inquiry’s lack of transparency and its alleged bias.
Contrary to the convention with parliamentary inquiries, the Ruddock inquiry is conducting hearings in secret, denying equality advocates the opportunity to address the myth-making of the “religious freedom” lobby.
The allegation of bias comes from pro-equality witness, Suzanne Eastwood, who said of her hearing:
“There was no question that any type of discrimination would be reduced. It was more along the lines of, ‘how will discrimination be even more entrenched than it is now?’”
The panel should have an LGBTI member and the PM should step in to ensure it is transparent and fair.
Just as bad as the inquiry’s flaws is the lacklustre response to the “religious freedom” narrative from some LGBTI community leaders and our natural allies. The Equality Campaign has done too little to generate the public awareness and letter-writing campaign needed to counter the flood of submissions generated by the Australian Christian Lobby.
Maybe LGBTI leaders don’t see the need or are just in a refractory period – whatever the cause, the solution is greater accountability and transparency in how LGBTI community priorities are set and carried out.
Too many human rights advocates I have spoken to are also nonchalant about the threat posed by the religious freedom movement because “it’s an American thing”, “Australians aren’t that religious” and “it would never happen here”.
They said the same about the American movement to ban same-sex marriage right up until Howard brought it to Australia.
I’m particularly disappointed by the Human Rights Commission’s repeated failure to call out the “religious freedom” movement for what it really is, instead declaring we need to find “a balance” between LGBTI equality and religious freedom.
In Australia, religious freedom is protected in the constitution, religious discrimination is outlawed in most states and we are almost unique in the western world in already allowing religious bodies wide scope to sack, turn away or belittle LGBTI people. When the Human Rights Commission talks about “balance”, it means giving bishops even more power to make life miserable for LGBTI people.
Eastwood said she fears the LGBTI community has no friend on the Ruddock panel. The same could be said of the fight against the religious freedom movement generally. All the fair-weather friends who felt safe waving rainbow flags just a couple of months ago have vanished, despite that victory being under serious threat.
So is there anything that gives me hope Australia won’t repeat the mistake of 2004?
Progressive people of faith are far more vocal and organised, thanks largely to their refugee and marriage equality campaigns. Some clergy are already organising and fundraising to face down the religious freedom movement.
After protracted debate on the impact of a plebiscite, Labor and the Senate crossbench are also more aware of how deeply discrimination damages LGBTI people and our families.
But to draw out these political potentialities, everyday LGBTI Australians must return to what won marriage equality – we must again talk to our families, communities and local MPs; this time about what it feels like for us to be legally refused services, sacked because of who we love, or suffer hate without recourse.
LGBTI people must again take our destiny into our own hands, just like we did after the 2004 marriage ban, and just as we have done so many times before.
• Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for just.equal and long time LGBTI equality advocate
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