The lobbying push on the religious freedom bill — which the government has booted into next year, perhaps hoping for a death and resurrection — is gathering pace. How’s it going?

Not well, not well. News Corp is going big with a report from the Centre of Independent Studies (the right-wing thinktank which shares its acronym with Russia, which must make for hilarious mix-ups when receiving orders) on religious life in Australia. Or one finding of the report, anyway — that “80% of Australians believe respecting religion is important in a multicultural society”.

But oh no, the rest of it was not from heaven sent. A majority believe religion divides more than it unites, and a clear majority — 64% — believe employers should not be able to discriminate on religious grounds. Only 30% believe even a specifically religious employer should have the right to discriminate.


That’s about the same as the yes vote in the marriage plebiscite, and support for legalised abortion. It’s almost like there’s a broad secular majority in Australia, with a general base of socially progressive values. What to do?

The report’s authors, Monica Wilkins and Robert Forsyth, have an idea: ignore public opinion. The results show, they say, that there is “public misunderstanding about what religious freedom means”.

The people think it to be about private belief they hold in their hearts, when really it’s about religious institutions and visible practices of faith. Forgive the poll respondents, Lord, for they know not what they think. Thank God the anti-elitists of the CIS are here to help them out.

The poll rather inadvertently reveals the truth about the religious freedom bill: that it is an expression of the weakness of organised religion, not its strength or social importance. Seventy percent of Australians told the last census they are religious: 52% Christian, 8% other organised, 10% not specified. Christian church attendance is at 15.5% of the population once a month or more.

That is one of the least practising religious societies in the world.

The churches do not actually have a congregation. What they do have is property, tax-deductible status, hospitals and schools, both the latter essentially co-run with the government via state subsidies. With the money and power from these organisations, they can hire spokespeople and lobbyists to argue for more help from the state in keeping their organisations going.

They don’t always get value for money, as this morning, when Monica Doumit, director of public affairs at the Archdiocese of Sydney, and Bilal Rauf, a spokesperson for the Australian National Imams Council, went on RN and rapidly needed divine intervention from host Hamish Macdonald.

Doumit argued that the church needed the right to discriminate in the hiring of staff at St Vinnie’s which led Macdonald to wonder politely what terrible conflicts were occurring at the Clarinda oppy (my version, not his) that warranted a law to sort it out. At this Doumit did a full rosary of bluster.

Rauf stressed the need for religious vilification laws, citing the recent assault of a pregnant Muslim woman “who had her head stomped on… I mean that will be pursued as a crime, but the hate aspect is missing”.

It is Bilal. Stomping on a pregnant woman’s head is a crime, against a person. The idea of adding a US-style hate tariff suggests preferential treatment, and that a pregnant woman who got her head stomped because she talked back and the Jack Daniel’s is finished is somehow less-wronged against.

The bad faith around this bill is extraordinary. “Hospitals” aren’t just hospitals anymore if by that we mean wards with nuns soothing fevered brows; they are billion dollar high-tech body factories. If churches manifest their mission by running hospitals then good on ’em, but they now do so as part of a universal health service, and the rules of public secularity should apply — even if there’s a sepia photo of Sister Wilfred hanging over the flower shop.

The same goes for aged care, by and large. Churches should have a right to hire and fire on specific religious grounds for core faith activities, with government subsidy coming in under a threshold of, say, 5-10%. And if they were to limit themselves to that, progressives should support them on the grounds of the institutional autonomy they might want to claim: hiring and firing at an LGBTIQ radio station, for example, or an Indigenous organisation.

Religious bodies have most of that already. They want expanded state-enforced hiring and firing laws to strengthen their institutions and rebuild the congregations they are losing to secular modernity.

Why don’t they try rebuilding their reputations first?

There is no substantial attack on religious freedom in Australia. There is cultural racism directed at West Asian Muslims, much anti-Indigenous and anti-African-Australian racism, and a comparatively small (and disproportionately reported) anti-Semitism.

There is, however, vigorous criticism of the Catholic church for its collapse into satanic, adversarial manufacture of hardcore, dog-collared paedophile predators over several decades — and the CIS’ survey shows just how few Australians want to extend them a special legal status.

Time to retreat, fathers and sisters and others. You may come to rue the day you were so desperate to open up this discussion, which may have people willing to ask why their taxes fund sexist, archaic religious curricula in schools, or why substantial businesses have a tax deductible status.

Truly, God moves in mysterious ways. Maybe she’s an Australian, and doesn’t believe in herself.

Does Australia need a religious freedom bill? Will the government pass it anyway? Let us know by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.