Astonishingly, the answer to the question posed here, recently provided by the Queensland Department of Education and Training is: No! In their latest reviews of material used in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) offered in public schools in that State, they assert as follows:
While not explicitly prohibited by the [relevant legislation], nor referenced in the [Departmental published] RI policy statement, the Department expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.
(This statement is found both in the Report on the Review of the GodSpace Religious Instruction Materials, March 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 5, and in the Report on the Review of the ACCESS ministries’ Religious Instruction Materials, Feb 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 6.)
In this post I want to explain why this over-reaching bureaucratic imposition is not justified by the law governing the Department’s activities, and indeed is probably illegal.
On this Easter long weekend, as Christians around the world are remembering and celebrating the key events of the faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, readers may find a paper I wrote a little while ago helpful in evaluating the legal status of the various pieces of evidence supporting the fact of the resurrection. As I note there:
We need to be clear about this: the fact that the resurrection of Jesus actually, literally happened in the Middle East about 2000 years ago, is vital if Christianity is to be taken seriously. Christianity may or may not have a set of moral principles that make living in society more pleasant- but if the Bible is taken seriously, the moral principles are not at the centre of the Christian faith. Christianity stands or falls on a set of events said to have occurred at a specific time, in a specific place.
I have linked to this paper on this blog previously, but I think it is one of the more important ones that I have written, and worth sharing again. I trust and pray that those who see Christianity as a mere “fable” or fiction might find here some reasons to reconsider the powerful evidence.
As I said last time:
I am fully persuaded, by this evidence, that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in the 1st century; and that fact was the turning point of history. If you haven’t made up your mind about this yet, or even if you decided long ago without really looking into it as an adult, I invite you to read and consider carefully.
Sometimes a powerful visual image is what is needed to shock us into action. But can an image be so powerful and horrifying that it becomes “obscene” and hence unlawful to use in public? That, it seems, is now the view being taken in Victoria of a particular type of image: pictures of unborn babies who have been killed. While the decision of a Victorian court, it may be followed elsewhere in Australia.
Abortion of course is an incredibly difficult topic to discuss. Those who see it as the termination of human lives are determined to get this message across as clearly as possible. Views will differ, as to whether using visual images of terminated unborn children is an appropriate or helpful way of furthering the discussion.But should those who firmly believe that this is one of the only ways to get their message across, be punished by the law for public obscenity? That is the import of the recent decision of a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, Emerton J, in Fraser v County Court of Victoria & Anor  VSC 83 (21 March 2017).
The debate on same sex marriage in Australia, and the debate on whether we can have a debate, took some interesting turns in the last week. I have a comment on Mercatornet where I discuss how beer and bibles led to questions about what can be said and who can say it: see “Beer, Bibles and free speech in Australia” .
Can a reserve member of the Armed Forces make controversial, religiously motivated, political comments on a private website contrary to Defence Force policy? Sadly, the answer provided by the recent decision in Chief of the Defence Force v Gaynor  FCAFC 41 (8 March 2017) is, No, not without having their service terminated.
I mentioned the earlier decision of a single judge of the Federal Court in these proceedings in a previous post over a year ago: see Free speech and religious freedom even for ADF members (Dec 10, 2015). In that earlier decision Buchanan J ruled that Major Bernard Gaynor’s termination was unlawful, because in applying the relevant regulations the Chief of the Defence Force had breached the implied “freedom of political communication” under the Commonwealth Constitution. Now the Full Court of the Federal Court (Perram, Mortimer & Gleeson JJ) has overturned that previous decision and upheld the termination. The decision and the way that the “freedom of political communication” is dealt with have disturbing possible consequences for free speech in Australia on controversial political topics, many of which are raised these days by religious beliefs which run contrary to “orthodox” opinions in society at large.
There was a recent reference in the excellent “Law and Religion UK” blog to a decision on the liability of a Church of England vicar and Parish Council for an injury suffered in a church hall: see “Church liability: fall from ladder” (David Pocklington, 8 March 2017). Since this case brings together two of my main academic interests, Law & Religion and Workplace Health & Safety (see my book on the topic, 2nd ed 2016, the cover of which is above), I couldn’t resist a comment on how this sort of case may have been resolved in Australia.
Barronelle Stutzman, who runs a florist’s business in Washington State in the USA, has just lost another appeal in court proceedings based on her decision to decline to prepare floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding. In State of Washington v Arlene’s Flowers Inc and Stutzman, (Wash SC, En Banc, No 91615-2; 16 Feb 2017) the 9 members of the Washington Supreme Court upheld an earlier order that she pay damages and also the costs of her opponents, likely to run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Note that, of course, this is not a decision of the final court of appeals, the US Supreme Court; whether or not there is an appeal to that court remains to be seen.)
You can see Ms Stutzman speak about the circumstances in a video here. In short, she had catered for one member of the couple by supplying flowers for him for many years, knowing he was gay. But it was only when he asked her to devote her artistic talents to the celebration of a same-sex marriage, a union she saw as contrary to God’s will according to her Christian faith, that she politely declined. She was then sued both by the State of Washington (under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, WLAD, which includes “sexual orientation” as a prohibited ground of discrimination), and in separate proceedings by the couple themselves.
The Arlene’s case is only one of a number of examples of cases involving participants in what might be called the “wedding support industry,” who have been sued for sexual orientation discrimination after declining to devote their skills to the celebration of a homosexual marriage relationship. (I have mentioned this specific case in a previous blog post here, and other cases here.) I dealt with a number of the issues in my article on “Freedom of Religion and Balancing Clauses in Discrimination Legislation” (2016) 5/3 Oxford Journal of Law and Religion 385-430. Following the approach taken in that article, I want to analysis this most recent decision under the headings:
- Is this sexual orientation discrimination?
- If so, is there or should there be some “balancing clause” applicable to recognise religious freedom?
I will then turn to briefly discuss the policy issues that arise in these cases, and address the fear that recognition of religious freedom here would lead to serious impairment of other rights and freedoms.