Home' Aurora : Aurora October 2012 Contents 15
www.mn.catholic.org.au Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
FREEDOM OF RELIGION is something
that is normally taken for granted. But
in the English speaking world there
have recently been many spot fires over
issues like wearing and hanging crosses
in public, and proposed legislation to
compel the disclosure of what is heard in
confession, to compel Christian adoption
agencies to accept applications from gay
couples and to force clergy to marry gay
couples in churches.
These, and other controversies over the
insurance of contraceptive practices in the
United States, have led some Catholics
to identify a concerted secularist threat
to religious freedom. I believe that the
freedom to express publicly one's religious
beliefs is central within any healthy society,
but that the current tensions are part of
the normal negotiation of its relationship to
other values in society.
Religious freedom includes the right to
hold religious beliefs, to associate with
others with like beliefs, to engage in
practices connected with those beliefs, and
to commend one's religious allegiances,
beliefs and way of life to others. Religious
freedom implies the right of individuals
to make and withdraw from religious
allegiances, and also the right of religious
groups to live by and promote their beliefs
It also means that people should not be
impeded from holding religious beliefs,
expressing them and embodying them in
their association with others.
Religious freedom should be protected
for the same reasons as political freedom.
Both assert the value of human beings
reflecting on what matters in life and of
living publicly by the answers they give to
these large questions. Religious freedom
asserts the importance of human freedom
and the personal centre that grounds the
respect given to individual choice.
This human freedom and interiority must
be supported by the right to express itself
in public and bodily ways. When religious
or political freedom is suppressed, human
beings are reduced to political and
But religious freedom is not absolute.
Nor is everything claimed in its name
sacrosanct. Its claims need to be set
against the claims made by other human
values. And they may sometimes be denied.
Extreme examples are easy to imagine. In
some religions human sacrifice was central
to belief systems and practice. Freedom to
practise it would rightly be denied because
it stands in contradiction to the central
value of human life.
Some religious groups, consistently with
their beliefs, have forbidden their members,
including children, to receive blood
transfusions. Here, too, the freedom of the
parents to follow in their family life their
own religious practices has been set aside
in favour of the child's right to life-saving
On the other hand, the freedom of parents
to have male children circumcised in
accordance with religious tradition, though
questioned, has generally been upheld.
Generally speaking, however, the most
common limitations on religious freedom
in democracies do not apply to central
practices and beliefs themselves but to
the particular ways in which individuals and
groups choose to express them publicly.
And those things are often negotiable.
In my childhood the church Angelus Bell
rang at seven o'clock each morning,
including weekends. But when the
neighbours complained that it interfered
with their sleep, it was rung later in
the morning. Similarly, after some
dispute, Sikhs were able to wear their
head dress, but not as substitutes for
Such limitations on freedom of religious
expression are usually negotiated
peaceably by mutual agreement in a
way that affirms the claim of the values
in tension. Earlier fierce opposition to
trying clergy in the king's courts is now a
We should expect challenges to religious
freedom from time to time as other
principles come to be given a higher weight
in society. These challenges will be more
frequent in societies like ours where
religious belief and practice decline.
Many of the present conflicts over religious
freedom are associated with the high value
given to the principle of non-discrimination.
Recent events have highlighted the emotions that can erupt when religious freedom is exercised -- or at
least, what looks like religious freedom is being exercised. The Consulting Editor of Eureka Street, Andrew
Hamilton SJ, reflects on where religious freedom stands in relation to the other freedoms humanity values.
By ANDREW HAMILTON SJ
It is seen to be in conflict with the freedom
of Christian adoption agencies to place
children with Christian parents, of schools
to employ only Christian staff, and with the
freedom of ministers to conduct in their
churches marriages only between a man
and a woman.
Many see these pressures to limit religious
freedom as part of a concerted effort by
secularist forces. I don't see it that way.
They reflect new fault lines in the tension
between religious freedom and other values
and the need to negotiate the claims of
each in different situations.
Both religious freedom and non-
discrimination are important values, but
the claim made by neither is absolute. But
in negotiation ambit claims are made, and
from this perspective many demands for
the limitation of religious freedom are
simply ambit claims, not the first wave of an
Negotiation requires a clear understanding
of the values that are in conflict in each
situation, of why each value is important, of
what is non-negotiable and where there is
room for movement. All this is best done by
persuasion, not by going to war.
This article was originally published
in Eureka Street. Please visit www.
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