“Non Resistance and Passive Obedience were the only Orthodox and Catholick Doctrines, so long as they imagined it would never come to their own turn to practice them.”

— Samuel Snowden, 1693

It will come as no surprise that people have been pointing the hypocrisy of conservatives on religious freedom for several centuries. As the above-quoted English cleric pointed out after the Glorious Revolution had brought a Dutch monarch to England, suddenly being on the receiving end of political power can alter one’s mindset rather radically about how it should be used. William III was determined to extend official toleration to Nonconformists outside the Church of England, so Anglicans now had to live by the very words they had used to demand that, under the previous Stuart regime, Nonconformists endure persecution: the king’s word is divine law, so if you don’t like it, too bad. Shut up and comply.

Fair to say, the Anglicans didn’t like being told to tolerate Nonconformists. Not one little bit.

Scroll forward three and a bit centuries and the same hypocrisy is causing tensions here over religious freedom. Of course, the “freedom” involved is not the basic freedom being discussed, with what by late 17th-century standards was vintage snark by Sam Snowden — to worship whatever deity you wish, and to do so without being the subject of discrimination or persecution. Instead, the debate is about a vaguer freedom to refuse to bake wedding cakes, or perform at a wedding reception, or publicly vilify LGBTI people.

But what might be called the Snowden Somersault is being performed here as well. Suddenly conservatives are calling for slabs of UN texts to be incorporated into law and special protections for the religious are being invoked. As more than one critic has noted, these are people who normally wouldn’t have a bar of international treaties or the UN, and in some cases who have railed at any manifestation of sharia law — which, those critics warn, could be ushered in if you start putting in place special protections for religious feelings.

The somersault extends to the self-portrayal of No campaigners. Before last Wednesday, in their view, the religious Right were the silent majority of Australians. Now they claim minority status instead, and bid for victimhood and protection against secular persecution — these days a consistent tactic of any powerful group that finds its power diminished marginally. Thus, the protections of special laws for religion, or perhaps even a bill of, at least, religious rights, are now under discussion, when such thinking was dismissed as egregious left-wing ratbaggery just weeks ago.

There’s more somersaulting. The government has employed Philip Ruddock to head a panel to consider the issue of religious freedom. That’s to bolster the case being made by Turnbull-aligned conservatives who want marriage equality off the table by Christmas and religious freedom can be dealt with separately next year. Other conservatives, like Scott Morrison, aren’t buying it, and want the matter dealt now, with in Dean Smith’s bill. But Ruddock is a bizarre choice. As Attorney-General, not merely did he impose religious-based discrimination by overseeing the Howard government’s amendment of marriage legislation to limit it to men and women, he oversaw the most egregious attack on basic freedoms since the 1950s courtesy of the Howard government’s anti-terror laws (since rejected as inadequate by Ruddock’s successor, George Brandis, who has made them much worse). If his past is anything to go by, Ruddock’s idea of religious freedom probably involves preventive detention and blasphemy laws.

At this rate, who knows where we’ll end up on the issue when the government finally lets the House of Representatives meet the week after next.

Peter Fray

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