Dear Australians, We Need Coercive Control Laws Not a Religious Discrimination Bill

I’m not usually one to take a strong interest in politics, unless of course an issue props up that effects me directly. It is an egocentric mindset that many people can relate to. It is also a dangerous complacency because without active interest in what our politicians are doing, dubious bills can slip pass unnoticed, for example, the Australian Federal Liberal party’s Religion Discrimination Bill 2021.

Last year when researching a group of radical extremists, I became aware of the nuances of Australian’s so-called Freedom of Religion Act. Long story short, despite Australia supposedly upholding all human rights, for some reason, Freedom of Religion has the capacity to overwrite other human rights. In others words, if you want to abuse someone, all you need to do is claim you are acting in accordance with your religious beliefs.

Want to reduce others to servitude and keep them in line with cruel and demeaning punishments? No worries, mate, go ahead if that’s what your God says is the only way to get into heaven. Want to spy on someone and arbitrarily interfere with their privacy and communication with others? That’s also fine, mate, surely nothing can wrong if a religious leader has absolute control over who their followers talk to and interact with. No possible manipulation there at all. Want to arbitrarily deprive someone their of property? If that’s your religion, then go right ahead. For instance, taking quality shoes off a teenager with foot problems and giving them to an adult with no foot problems is a very reasonable religious practice. I’m sure the kid will be happy with those shoes that are two sizes too small which they found in a dumpster. As for those corns and fungal infections they develop due to inadequate footwear, well, that will just help them develop character. I bet God wanted that teenager to suffer anyway, that’s why the leader was guided in a dream to take the shoes off them in the first place. Want to promote suicidal ideation and self harm practices? Ordinary that’s not allowed, but if it’s part of your faith then Australia will provide you with a legal loophole to get away with it. Thus, Australia is becoming a desirable location for spiritual gurus who want form a religion.

I wish I could say the above paragraph was a fabrication of worst case scenarios, but it’s not. This has all happened in Australia. And this is still happening in Australia right now. Why? Because Australian authorities do not have the power to intervene. Freedom of Religion legislation as it currently stands can and does override other criminal offences. The so-called new and improved version of policies that Scott Morrison’s government is trying to get approved will only make matters worse. A snapshot of harmful religious practices currently conducted within Australia can be found on the Cult Information and Family Support website.

Abusive behaviours that are justified, executed, and legalised as religious freedom have a long history dating back thousands and thousands of years. Hitler was just following his religious beliefs too. Many who lived through WW2 swore it should never happen again. The United Nation’s defining of basic human rights was a collaborative effort from around the globe aimed at preventing atrocities occurring by religious fundamentalists with superiority complexes. Perhaps the current Australia government needs a history lesson?

While I have become involved in the issue through dealing with a radical extremist group (who claim to be a minority Christian religion), many others have criticised the Morrison government’s proposal for other reasons. Condemners include legal experts, unions, and civil organisations like LGBTIQA+ communities and women’s rights movement.

A few weeks ago, journalist Dalley-Fisher made the following remarks in The Canberra Times in relation to how the bill could harm sexual discrimination:

“ … it’s great to hear that the federal government is interested in legislating to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. [..] It’s therefore extremely frustrating to discover that the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 not only fails to properly implement the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but it also manages to exacerbate the sort of cultural barriers that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s reports seek to overcome.

[..] Rather than limiting the right to manifest beliefs to protect the rights of others, the Bill actually limits the human right of others to freedom from discrimination, in order to protect the right to manifest beliefs.”

These sentiments could be aptly applied to other scenarios. The bill places religion and religious practices as more being important than common decency and other forms of discrimination. I’m all for individuals having the right to believe and practice whatever religion they want, but I’m not okay with religious rationales being accepted as a means of excusing abusive practices. The bill itself is an act of coercive control aimed at encouraging Australians to be tolerant of religious abuse.

If the Religious Discrimination bill goes ahead, then, as per the summary of the legislation, discrimination will be prohibited “on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity in a range of areas of public life, including in relation to employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and accommodation”. The aim is not to protect individuals who are non-religious and/or who have beliefs that differ to mainstream faiths. The aim is to protect mainstream religions by establishing “general and specific exceptions from the prohibition of religious discrimination” to a point in which “certain statements of belief [will] not constitute discrimination for the purposes of certain specified Commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination laws”. Did everybody get that? Religious conglomerates can avoid being charged with anti-discrimination under “Commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination laws” for exercising their religious beliefs “in relation to employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and accommodation”. Organised religions will have more rights than the average individual.

Why in hell (pun intended) would politicians want to create a bill that removes protections of human rights from certain individuals in order to allow other individuals the right to manifest beliefs that are sexist, racist, and otherwise abusive? The motive is clear. The only reason possible, is to increase the power of religious groups. What religious group may the Scott Morrison government have in mind? The obvious answer = Pentecostal Christianity. Of particular interest is Morrison’s connection to Hillsong, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity that was introduced to Australia via American influences in the 1980s.

If Morrison’s aim is to increase privileges of Christianity – in particular Pentecostal versions – then he is being short sighted of the broader implications regarding the bill.

Morrison’s support of religious ideology includes being a close friend of one of Hillsong’s leading pastors, Brian Houston. How close? Let’s just say he’s known him a very long time and the bonds are sufficient for him to put Houston’s name down as a potential guest for an event at the White House. (By the way, Houston is currently facing criminal charges relating to the cover up of child sex abuse.)

Morrison’s alliance with Hillsong is long and controversial. Their adrenaline pumping gatherings were in the news recently for not following the Covid-19 mandate of no dancing at festivals – apparently there was some confusion over the NSW health order in which Hillsong thought being a religious gathering meant they had an exception to the rule that everyone else had to follow. Going back to March 2020, when Covid was beginning to impact the county, many speculated Morrison delayed the introduction of density limits till after a Hillsong concert. Was he looking after his mates’ best interests or the country’s? Either way, we know Morrison loves attending these kinds of worshipping sessions.

Scott Morrison opening Hillsong conference 2019. Source: Wikipedia

Pentecostal religion is relatively new but still has some of the good old medieval beliefs surrounding heaven and hell, Jesus and Satan, and predictions of the end times. Each particular Pentecostal Church and believer may have differing opinions, as is the norm across many versions of Christianity. Of concern are the devout who most vehemently believe you have to follow their version of beliefs in order to secure bliss in the afterlife. Subsequently, many Australians, like me, may be judged as being doomed for hell. That’s fine. What is not fine is putting fundamentalists in a position where others can be discriminated against and then protecting the acts of discrimination with federal laws that supersede state and commonwealth laws.

Belief in demonology and other unseen spirits is also pretty big in some Christian circles. Again, that’s fine. I’m happy to keep an open mind to the existence of fairies and gnomes too (and Allah, Buddha, and any other deity). But why should one ideology have the opportunity to discriminate over another? I don’t know exactly where Morrison stands on these issue, so I can only speculate. Besides, the issue isn’t directly what he believes anyway, the issue is that he is making legislations that empowers faith above rational reasoning. This is especially worrisome in relation to mental health issues when theories of possession are applied to individuals who are struggling with addiction and well-being concerns. Its dark age superstitions of psychology at its best when demons are used to explain conditions like anxiety, depression, and psychosis, while contemporary knowledge of the nervous system and the effects of trauma are ignored.

While most Christians are caring, kind hearted people, who do their best to look out for the needs of others, by creating legislation that it gives blanket approval to religious groups to express their faith, the door is opened for religious groups to use this loophole in such a manner that other human rights are neglected. Not only will it put more power into the hands of mainstream religions, it will also allow destructive cults and radical extremists the capacity to discriminate against others. The marginalised will be atheists, non-religious people, and individuals who do not otherwise have the backing of a religious ideology to justify “certain statements of belief”. Rather than promoting equality, a major criticism of the bill is that gives privileges to certain groups who want to exercise prejudices in the name of religion. The potential repercussions are highly alarming to say the least, especially given that freedom of religion in Australia already favours Christianity over other faiths.

Focus on spiritual principles in relation to work and employment situations is also damning when individuals are expected to work for God, not money. Whistleblower, Nicole Herman, says the Hillsong church is a cult that expects followers to work for free, despite huge annual earnings. This situation is not unique to Hillsong. I have had direct interactions about this subtle form of enslavement with the Australian Federal Police, Fair Work Ombudsmen, and Workplace Health and Safety Commission. If religious groups can conn their followers into forgoing their rights to be given fair pay in exchange for their time, services, and skills then Australian agencies are not in a strong position to intervene. I have personally had this conversation with all three of the aforementioned government agencies in relation to a religious group (not Hillsong) that coerces members into working for the leader for free. Despite it being clear there is an employment relationship and group members are performing work outside of volunteer guidelines, religious leaders can avoid persecution due to, you guessed it, “freedom of religion”.

Moving on, Hillsong has received 42 million tax-free dollars of federal money under questionable circumstances. The church the Morrison’s personally attend, Horizon, received 110K for security upgrades, which some question the necessary of. And a Hillsong teaching academy is reported to have received 5 million in support packages. Is this the type of education Morrison believes constitutes more learning and less activism?

From slave labour to tax cuts and government handouts, Hillsong is doing so well it was able to recently purchase Melbourne’s Festival Hall for 23 million dollars. I’m not alone in the opinion that the situation highlights financial advantages given to religious organisations that are unfair and need to be addressed by making them pay taxes like everyone else.

But wait, while on the topic of a performing arts theatre venue, let’s not forget that in 2019 Morrison slashed Arts funding and merged the Department of Communications and Arts portfolio into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Is it just me or does Morrison care more about providing support to religions than encouraging a diverse range of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief through artistic expressions? Further, while Hillsong currently say they will maintain the Melbourne Festival Hall as a host venue for performing artists (except on Sundays), who’s to say they won’t censor performances by only permitting artists who align with Pentecostal beliefs to use the facility?

Coercive control can be tricky to identify because you can’t always look at just one instance and call it out. It’s the sum of its parts, not the individual parts them self. Having said that, the Religious Discrimination bill 2021 is a very big part of a broader picture.

Coercive control involves behaviour such as intimidation, threats, humiliation tactics, and other forms mental or emotional abuse. For instance, telling someone they’ll go to hell for being gay, implying God wants all women to be subservient to men, claiming anxiety is caused by the devil tempting their soul, belittling traumatic events as being the result of karma, and so forth.

The harmful toll on mental and physical health caused by coercive control is increasingly becoming known and documented. Likewise, it is well recognised by mental health experts that religion is the perfect breeding ground for manipulative behaviours to flourish, hence terms like spiritual bypassing and religious abuse are becoming more common. Personally, I’d place a lot more faith in a government that wanted to protect its citizens from religious abuse than one that endorses coercive control by empowering religious groups with the ability to forgo human rights.

As reported in several articles (like The Conversation), Morrison believes he was chosen by God to be Prime Minister. I wonder if Morrison thinks he was chosen by God to become Prime Minister so as he could evangelise? Perhaps he views the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 as his holy work?

Am I being too harsh? Too cynical? Perhaps Morrison is really a level headed human who is capable of putting his personal faith in perspective and doesn’t allow it to bias his professional decision making processes? If so, why is the number of Pentecostal Christians in Morrison’s cabinet so high? Pentecostal Christianity represents 1.1% of the population but at least 10% of Morrison’s cabinet are Pentecostal and at least 50% are affiliated with a Christian doctrine. How can a cabinet dominated by one particular religious ideology create fair laws which cater to the diverse climate of Australian culture? Likewise, how can preferential funding practices be scrutinised?

It is beyond disappointing that institutions could be given the option of terminating employment due to clashes of belief towards things like gender equality and sexual orientation (even the Pope has let go of archaic ideas of homosexuality being caused by demonic possession). Such measures means that opportunities for positive connections between faiths, like I experienced when working at an Islamic school, could be lost.

From a big picture perspective, giving more power to religious groups under the guise of protecting the integrity of their faith, may be fine if that religion supports other human rights. However, it also paves the way for smaller religious communities to exercise prejudicial behaviours that diminish human rights. Australia is not immune to radical extremism, and oddly, our anti-terrorist and violent extremism laws can be overrided by freedom of religion rights. (Again, I can confirm this due to direct interactions about the matter.)

In sum, the Morrison government is not promoting policies aimed at cultivating peace and harmony within a multicultural and multi-faith country. His devotion to his faith is a conflict of interest that places the right to freedom of religion above other human rights. While many points can only be speculated, the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 indicates the Australian Federal Liberal party has a lack of integrity.

I propose a formal investigation is conducted into the the use of federal funds to support Hillsong and Morrison’s conflict of interest in making policy regarding religious beliefs and conduct.

Australians, we need to curb discriminatory, abusive, and coercive practices in all sectors so as everyone genuinely gets a fair go.

In February 2022, Australian parliament intends to review the Religious Discrimination Bill 2022. If you do not want to see this bill passed, please share this open letter to others and let the politicians know we will not tolerate coercion and the diminishing of humans rights.

Christian Principles, What are They?: Supplemental to Dear Australians, We Need Coercive Control Laws Not. Religious Discrimination Bill

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