Postcard from Adelaide

When the Australian Parliament voted to allow same-sex partners to marry, 61.6 percent of Australians took it as a Christmas gift, and affirmed the decision in a national referendum. The significant minority that opposed the move (38.6%) included many Christians and churches. During the long voting period, debate became acrimonious. There are some real questions about the freedoms of those who cannot in conscience endorse same-sex marriage.

Australians are not outspoken on matters of faith. We do not have a bill of rights guaranteeing freedom to practice religion, although our Constitution bans the federal government from imposing laws that restrict the free exercise of religion.

As in the United States, the advent of same-sex marriage has brought a number of difficult questions to Australia’s civic and legal life; last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull established an inquiry into whether Australian law adequately protects freedom of religion.

Leading the review is the Hon. Philip Ruddock, well known in Australian public life as a former cabinet minister. He retired from the House of Representatives in 2016 as “father of the house” — the longest-serving member of the national Parliament. But he’s not putting his feet up, and serves as mayor of his local council.

He is also a practicing Anglican. He tells TLC that he enjoys his association with St. James King Street in Sydney: “We get there when we can.”

The Diocese of Sydney was vocal in its opposition to the same-sex marriage proposal, but Ruddock is used to being in the thick of public opinion.

He says he was “pleased to be asked” to lead the review, and he has a long track record of working on human-rights issues, in Australia and abroad.

Public service, like the faith, was passed on in his family. He attended an Anglican school and said his father served in council and later in Parliament. He spent “many hours talking about issues and problems people faced.”

In free and multicultural Australia, the delicate issue of religious freedom has a whole spectrum of practical implications. Last year a private Christian school in Victoria banned a student from attending because he wore a Sikh turban. His father launched a legal appeal and the school was overruled under the state’s Equal Opportunity Act.

It’s these kind of practical examples, genuine witness to religious tension, which Ruddock is seeking in submissions to the inquiry.

If people experience discrimination because of their faith, he says, he encourages them to report their experience, “rather than argument for argument’s sake.”

People have until mid-February to make their submissions, most of which will be published. Already, Ruddock said, there were 1,500, and he suspects some of the longer and more detailed submissions are yet to land.

While Ruddock tells TLC he regretted some of the “rancour which entered public debate” on same-sex marriage, he believes that “public debate on any issues is not damaging if it’s done with respect. You can have a sensible debate.

“I am proud that Australia has a strong commitment to religious, cultural, and racial diversity,” he said.

The committee will make its recommendations by the end of March. While committee members steer through some choppy waters, Ruddock seems like the type of captain who can calm the storm.

Robyn Douglass

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