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Religious freedom in the spotlight, politicians clarify their positions ahead of federal election

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Scott Morrison: “I support the law of the country. I don’t mix my religion with politics and my faith with politics.” Photo: CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters.

HEADING into the final days of the Australian election campaign party leaders zigzagged across the country, covering vast distances to win over voters and, at times, fielding thorny questions about gay marriage, free speech and religious belief.

Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison brushed aside questions about whether his personal views on same-sex marriage had changed since his vocal opposition to it during Australia’s controversial same-sex marriage plebiscite almost two years ago.

“I support the law of the country. I don’t mix my religion with politics and my faith with politics,” Mr Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian, said.

He also evaded a question about whether gay people went to hell, an apparent reference to the controversy surrounding rugby star Israel Folau, found guilty of breaching Rugby Australia rules for saying “homosexuals, drunks, isolators and thieves” would go to hell unless they repented.

Mr Morrison and Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have both received letters from Presbyterian, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist and Apostolic churches, as well as a number of religious school leaders, calling for protection of religious belief and free speech.

The letter to Mr Shorten asked him to clarify Labor’s official support for “appropriate protection of the religious freedom of all people”.

“This commitment leaves wide scope for interpretation, and much will turn on what is considered ‘appropriate’ in the eyes of a legislator,” the letter stated.

“We are concerned that these commitments lack sufficient particularity on key issues that are important to the preservation of the freedoms of religion, conscience, speech and association in our country.”

Both leaders have offered their views on Folau and, more widely, religious freedom.

“If you are not free to believe, what are you free to do in this country?” Mr Morrison said during a third and final election debate hosted at the National Press Club in Canberra on May 8.

“I admire people of religious conviction, I admire people who draw strength from their faith, I am one of those people.”

Mr Shorten offered a similar line.

“People should be free to practise their religion,” he said. 

“Israel Folau is entitled to his views and I think he shouldn’t suffer employment penalty for it.”

However, Mr Shorten also recognised the other side in the debate – the potentially hurtful impact of a public figure putting out such views on social media. 

“I don’t think it’s a clear-cut issue when the edges bump up against each other,” he said.

“If we are elected to government we will sit down with the churches, we’ll sit down with the lawyers, we’ll sit down with the Law Reform Commission, we’ll just work through that issue as we should.”

Mr Shorten was referring not to the Folau case, but to legal matters still outstanding after a review of Australia’s religious freedom laws, released last December.

The review, conducted by former attorney-general Philip Ruddock and a panel of experts including Jesuit lawyer and human rights advocate Fr Frank Brennan, accepted 15 of 20 recommendations but dropped plans to strip religious schools of their right to expel gay, lesbian and transgender students.

That issue – along with rights for LGBTI teachers – was referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission, to be reviewed during the second half of 2019 – safely after a federal election.

Days out from the May 18 poll, Labor remained poised to win a tight contest. 

The Australian newspaper reported a Newspoll survey showed the governing Liberal-National Coalition lifting its primary vote to 39 per cent. 

But Labor still leads by 51 per cent to 49 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis, with its primary vote also up slightly to 37 per cent.

Mr Shorten closed the gap on Mr Morrison in the “better prime minister” stakes, The Australian reported, with the Opposition Leader lifting three points to 38 per cent and the Prime Minister falling back one point to 45 per cent. 

About 17 per cent of voters remain undecided.

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