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Do we have religious freedom anymore?

The first test of religious freedom is underway in Tasmania and everyone – not just the faithful – has a stake in how it plays out.

Earlier this year the Catholic Church of Tasmania distributed a booklet called “Don't Mess with Marriage” to the parents of children attending Catholic schools. The booklet sets out the Catholic Church's view of marriage and family and describes the rationale for their opposition to same sex marriage.

Activist and Greens candidate Martine Delaney complained about the booklet to the Anti-Discrimination Commission. Delaney's complaint was that the booklet was offensive and insulting to LGBT persons. The Anti-Discrimination Commissioner has decided that Archbishop Julian Porteous, the Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania, has a case to answer before the anti-discrimination tribunal.

There has been a flurry of news reports and social commentary on this topic. Archbishop Porteous has defended the Church's views on the subject and put up a short video on youtube. Coalition Senator Eric Abetz recently put forward a motion in the senate to protect the Church's right to distribute such materials on the grounds of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The motion, despite support from several independents, was defeated by Labor and the Greens.

It seems to me that a few comments are in order.

First, in cases like this, public outrage is too often fuelled by the reporting of the relevant document rather than the document itself. It's important for critics of Archbishop Porteous to form their views from the booklet directly. And while there is no question that the contents will be disagreeable to some, that does not automatically make them hateful. The document expressly says in the introduction: “The Catholic Church opposes all forms of unjust discrimination. We deplore injustices perpetrated upon people because of religion, sex, race, age, etc. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls for understanding for those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies for whom this may well be a real trial.”

Many will read this as disingenuous or tokenistic; but it's hard to imagine how, then, a genuine respect for the LGBT community or condemnation of prejudice against them could be expressed, while still holding a different view on the issue of gay marriage. Is disagreement itself to be dismissed as hateful?

Second, there is an Orwellian redefinition of “tolerance” and “diversity” going on here. I was taught that “tolerance” meant that we can have robust debates about topics we are both passionate about, even while treating each other with a certain degree of dignity and respect. Now “tolerance” means that if you say anything that I find offensive, then I am fully justified in seeking punitive measures to destroy you. I was taught that “diversity” meant the right to think differently without fear of reprisal. Is “diversity” now limited to those beliefs that receive approval by mainstream opinion?

Third, am I the only one who finds it a little creepy that a Catholic bishop is about to be hauled before a court for teaching Catholic beliefs to Catholics? The booklet was written for and distributed to the parents of children who attend a Catholic school. The booklet clarifies the Catholic position in a way that I regard as pastorally sensitive and yet assertive of the Catholic Church's position. To be blunt about it, if this activity is deemed to be illegal, then religious freedom and freedom of speech in Australia is serious trouble. Even scarier is to imagine what might come next. After they've shamed the Catholics, fined them, seized their property, or imprisoned their clergy, who will be targeted next? Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Baptists, or political conservatives?

Fourth, we are scheduled to have a plebiscite about same sex marriage in 2017. How are we going to manage a legitimate referendum on the subject if anyone campaigning against the measure is sued into silence? How can we even have a debate on the subject, if one side of the debate is prosecuted in the courts simply for showing up?

The nature of the opposition to the Tasmanian Catholic Church reminds me of an article Professor Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College wrote recently, which points to an increasing trend in social discourse for protagonists not simply to want to win the argument, the debate, or even the election, but to demand total obedience to and compliance with their own ideology.

For such groups, Nichols writes, it is not enough to say: “I have had my day in court and prevailed.” In effect, they now add: “You do not have the right to hold a different opinion, even if you lose in the public arena. You may not hold on to your belief as a minority view, or even as a private thought. And if you persist and still disagree, I will attack you without quarter and set others on you to deprive you of your status in your profession, of your standing in your community, and even of your livelihood.”

As I read the protests against Archbishop Porteous, Professor Nichols' words resonate with me.

Let me add that I strongly believe in the right to be free from discrimination for everyone, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. I also believe, with no contradiction in my mind, in tolerance, diversity, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. I like to think that religious communities and LGBT communities can co-exist, even if they disagree. The question is whether progressive activists believe the same. Hauling a Catholic bishop before the courts to answer for being Catholic would suggest that some do not.

Michael Bird is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared at On Line Opinion.