The Morrison Government’s Chicken Little outrage at ‘the assault on religious freedom’ is manufactured from start to finish. Martine Delaney, one of the apparent reasons behind the Religious Freedoms Bill, calls them out.
The Federal Government’s rationale for overriding the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act is that the Archbishop of Hobart was hauled before a discrimination tribunal for simply stating Catholic doctrine on marriage.
Every word of that rationale is a lie. This article is about what actually happened.
Recently, Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, unveiled the government’s draft Religious Freedoms Bill that includes an override of the offensive language provision (section 17) of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act.
In media interviews, Mr Porter has cited a discrimination complaint I made against Tasmania’s Catholic Archbishop, Julian Porteous, as the prime example of why the legislation’s needed.
Mr Porter claimed the complaint was made against the Archbishop over statements of doctrine, “… no more than statements, Christian statements about their preference for a traditional view of marriage”. (7.30, ABC, 29/08/19)
Since that interview, this claim has been backed by political commentators like Gerard Henderson who said the Archbishop’s offence was “… just stating the Catholic position on marriage.” ( ABC Insiders, 01/09/19)
Even the Archbishop, in an opinion piece, wrote he was brought before the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner for “simply circulating Catholic teaching” among the Catholic community.” (The Australian, 23/08/19)
The message, from all these people, was that the complaint was taken to silence the Archbishop, to limit his freedom of religious expression, and that federal legislation is needed to stop such actions.
In relation to my complaint, none of the above claims are true. It is deliberate misinformation to continually publish them as fact.
It’s also concerning that neither interviewing journalists, nor political commentators, have taken the time to discover the facts, or question these statements.
It is especially concerning as the complaint is being offered up as a major reason for legislation which will expose some of Australia’s most vulnerable people to very real harm.
Here’s what actually happened.
In 2015, as Australia’s marriage equality debate heated up, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference distributed a booklet nationally, through its churches, schools and online.
“Don’t Mess with Marriage”, sub-titled “… a pastoral letter to all Australians”, claimed to simply and uncontroversially set out the Church’s reasons for opposing marriage equality. Yet it caused an uproar, across the country.
Thousands of angry, hurt, LGBTIQ Australians – and their families, colleagues and friends – took to social media and wrote to papers highlighting the harm the booklet was doing. There were student protests, walk-outs, at least one Catholic school principal visiting a family to apologise for the booklet, priests doing the same. Why the anger?
The booklet presented dogma – Catholic doctrine – as fact. It frequently failed to mention particular statements were Catholic belief, not actually universally-accepted fact. It used questionable, cherry-picked research to lend an unwarranted sense of factual authority.
The resulting document told us, as fact, same-sex-attracted people are, somehow, “not whole”; their relationships no more than friendships and inferior to heterosexual marriage in quality and importance; that they raise unhealthy children; and, most offensively, that same-sex parenting is “messing with kids”.
The bishops had to know that, for almost every Australian, “messing with kids” directly refers to paedophilia.
As evidenced by the outpouring of anger and hurt, the booklet was widely viewed as something other than simply a statement of Catholic doctrine, by and for Catholics. For thousands of Catholics, it was a demeaning attack on the worth of same-sex-attracted people and their families.
In response to many weeks of public outcry, much of it from Catholic communities, the bishops did nothing – apart from continuing to distribute the booklet. So, around September 2015, I lodged my complaint.
From the outset, the substance of the complaint was very clear: I was not against Catholic bishops putting the Church’s view on marriage. I was against them stating their view as fact, as well as the demeaning and unnecessary references they used to make their case.
Initially, Archbishop Porteous released some pre-recorded video statements, holding the line that the booklet was simply Catholic doctrinal advice, for Catholics, and continued distributing the booklet.
A few weeks later, the Archbishop finally spoke to the media, mentioning he’d like the opportunity to discuss these issues with me. I immediately sought a conciliation meeting. Ever since, the Archbishop – and countless politicians and journalists – have spoken of him being “dragged into conciliation for no reason”. Christian Porter suggests this is a prime reason for the proposed Bill.
Archbishop Porteous, though, describes the conciliation process differently: “… valuable at that level to have that personal interaction with the complainant and … I think I understood the other position more clearly as a result of it. I think that was good”. (Archbishop Porteous, to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Inquiry into the Status of the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Parliament of Australia, Canberra, 5 June 2018)
At conciliation, I offered the bishops a written statement, assuring them I was committed to ensuring the Church was able to voice its opposition to marriage equality, and to express its beliefs on marriage.
Personally, I found the Church’s position on secular marriage law absurd, but I completely respected the right to hold those beliefs.
I simply asked them to express those beliefs in a manner which made it clear they were statements of Church doctrine, not fact, and to re-word the more offensive phrases so they weren’t as overtly accusatory and demeaning to LGBTIQ Australians and their families.
I would have been happy with a booklet that I wholeheartedly disagreed with, so long as it didn’t imply a factual link between same-sex relationships and sexual abuse.
I also offered a possible solution – an edit of the booklet, to achieve the above.
They declined. Instead, they wanted only a joint statement, where we expressed our sadness at being misunderstood, and undertook to be nicer in future. And, the bishops would be free to keep handing out the booklet.
I declined, and withdrew.
My complaint was never about silencing the Church, limiting religious freedom, or winning marriage equality. It was always about working out a better way.
I hoped the Archbishop and I could set a very public benchmark for a grown-up national debate on marriage; where it wasn’t acceptable to score points by demeaning the value of another human being.
The bishops wouldn’t do this. And, we now know, that national debate was damaging to so many.
Worse, today, a complaint taken with the hope of creating respectful debate is being wrongfully used to justify privileging religious belief above any other human right.
Tasmania’s laws against hateful and offensive language have helped many people assert their human dignity in the face of stigma and prejudice.
The bulk of them have been people with disabilities.
For their sake, and the sake of the more inclusive Tasmania our laws have created, it’s time for lies about the Porteous case to stop.
It’s time to put the wellbeing of vulnerable people ahead of the hurt feelings of an Archbishop who balked at being held to the same standards as everyone else.
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