When I decided to post a Facebook notice about our major legal conference that addresses the rising tide of anti-Christian sentiment in the West, perhaps I was naïve enough to believe that I had no reason to anticipate trouble.
After all, this is not just another conference. Our list of speakers includes some our finest legal minds in Australia. Participating as moderators are some of the most distinguished members, both past and present, of the Western Australia parliament, including former speaker Michael Sutherland.
Our keynote speaker for this important conference is none less than the Distinguished Emeritus Professor William Wagner of Western Michigan University, Thomas Cooley Law School
The Patron for our conference is no less than John Howard, who served as the 25th Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007; the second-longest serving prime minister behind only Sir Robert Menzies, who was in office for over 18 years.
This is therefore a major legal event and we intend to publish conference proceedings in The Western Australian Jurist law journal the yearly blind peer-reviewed academic publication of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA).
You may recall an article written by me for The Spectator Australia, concerning Facebook’s arbitrary decision that this major conference “violates community standards”, and blocked anyone but me from seeing it.
It was only after Facebook received several complaints (and I had some lawyers expressing interest in suing the company) that Facebook finally lifted the censorship of the event.
Why a company such as Facebook should claim unto itself the “right” to inhibit and suppress free speech?
Apparently, someone working in this organisation assumes that the material relating to a conference on religious freedom violates their ‘community standards, so no one else can see it’.
I guess this only confirms the whole point about the conference. There is indeed a rise of anti-Christian sentiment in our western societies, including Australia.
Many Australians are deeply reticent to talk about religion in public life. They know, no matter how sensibly they present their argument, conservative Christian values are deeply unpopular with the mainstream media that offer manifold opportunities for radical secularists to accuse even some of our finest politicians of allegedly trying to impose their Christian convictions.
We are delighted to have John Howard as the Patron of our conference. Our Patron himself has been the victim of anti-Christian bigotry. For example, in a notorious piece published in The Age newspaper on February 26, 2005, Dr Muriel Porter endorsed Marion Maddox’s fantastical claim that, influenced by conservative Christians, the Howard government would have come ‘perilously close to endangering many of the personal freedoms most Australians take for granted’.
This argument is not only ridiculous but also contemptuous of our Christian values and traditions. Above all, it reveals a form of anti-religious bigotry against people from differing religious-political backgrounds.
On his personal faith, Howard expressed the following in his own autobiography:
The fundamentals of Christian belief and practice which I learned at the Earlwood Methodist Church have stayed with me to this day, although I would not pretend to be other than an imperfect adherent to them. I now attend a local Anglican church, denominational labels within Christianity meaning nothing to me. Any religious belief requires a large act of faith. To many people, believing in something that cannot be proved is simply a step too far. To me, by contrast, human life seems so complex and hard to explain yet so extraordinary that the existence of God has always seemed to offer a better explanation of its meaning than any other.
These are hardly the words of a fundamentalist! Apparently Howard’s greatest “crime” is to identify Judaeo-Christian values as the ‘greatest shaper, morally and ethically, of today’s Australia’. He explains that, while Australians owe much to such institutions as the United Nations and documents like the federal Constitution, ‘Australians can trace much of what they value back to the teachings of Christ’.
According to our former prime minister:
The notion that Christian influence and values should be consigned to history books is a nonsense. Australians should be aware that there are some who would drive Christian religion out of the public space. For instance, attempts made by some state governments, especially in Victoria, to make it almost impossible to have religious instruction in state schools–although technically allowed but made practically very difficult – is an offensive manifestation of an anti-religious streak in some sections of government around Australia, and it ought not be taken lightly…Those who would preference Jingle Bells but limit Once in Royal David’s City at Christmas in schools, are doing a great disservice to the next generation.
Being a renowned advocate of religious freedom as a fundamental right of the individual, Howard has called on the government to deal with the issue of protection of religious freedom. He believes that key threats to freedom of speech and political institutions posed by identity politics and social fragmentation have become a global phenomenon. He cites the 2017 debate over same-sex marriage, and the ongoing discussion about protection of religious freedoms as a key example of a more ideological and divisive politics currently affecting national politics.
As for the keynote speaker, Professor William Wagner holds the academic rank of Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Law and Constitutional Governance) where, as a tenured professor, he received the Beattie Award for Teaching Excellence (for making the greatest contribution to student legal education). He previously served in the United States Courts as a Federal Judge. Prior to his appointment on the federal bench, he served as a legal advisor and the chief American diplomat for the Department of Justice at an American Embassy in Africa. There he led a diplomatic mission charged with strengthening good governance and the rule of law. His international service also includes an appointment by the United States Courts as Commissioner to Canada.
Our keynote speaker has also authored written testimony, evidence, and briefs in such forums as the Swedish Supreme Court, the U.S. Congress, and the U.K. Parliament. As lead amicus counsel in many matters before the United States Supreme Court, he has authored briefs on behalf of various Christian organisations. Over the years, he has provided international assistance to the justice sector institutions of numerous countries on five continents. Professor Wagner has further addressed many executive, legislative, parliamentary, and judicial audiences throughout the world, and presented at various diplomatic forums including the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Professor Wagner also served as a senior United States prosecutor, litigating hundreds of federal cases and serving as chief of appellate litigation for the Office of the United States Attorney. Prior to serving in the Justice Department, Professor Wagner served as legal counsel as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Michigan legislature, where he supervised all legislative issues involving the separation of powers, due process, and other protections of individual rights and liberties, including the right to free expression and the free exercise of religious conscience.
We are very fortunate to have a speaker of this calibre visiting our country. Professor Wagner has a special interest in building and preserving environments where Christian people may share the Gospel free from persecution and oppression.
Unfortunately, there is an increasing demand from the secular left that religious expression be confined to private space and that political speech motivated by religious reasons should be affirmatively excluded from debate in the public square. This is inconsistent with the pluralistic nature of our democratic society. As noted by law professor Keith Thompson, ‘it coerces people to leave their religious values and beliefs behind them when they discuss anything in the public square’, thus placing a considerable number of law-abiding citizens ‘at an unequal disadvantage in public square discussion and debate since it prevents religious believers from expressing themselves in the language most familiar to them’.
We are witnessing an aggressive form of secularism, which views religious belief and practice with arrogant intolerance and dismissiveness. Notwithstanding the legal position, many of our politicians and influential sectors in the media have behaved in a way that does not respect the Australian Constitution by demanding that Christian people and institutions stop ‘meddling’ in politics. Such an attack on free speech represents an unjust discrimination against certain individuals or organisations. It is also hypocritical in the strict sense because such advice is usually given by those whose religion can be variously described as secular, humanist, atheistic, or agnostic.
Religious freedom is most definitely at the crossroads in Australia. Because religious freedom is definitely at stake in Australia, the best legal minds are necessary to protect our individual rights and freedoms before they are any further undermined by those intent on removing our freedom of association and freedom of political communication.
Our conference extends from Friday evening and extends to all Saturday at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia. Sheridan is a member of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities, which brings together more than forty Baptist higher education institutions in the United States, Asia and Africa.
The Sheridan College Statement of Academic Freedom notes that Baptists were at the forefront of the struggle for the fundamental rights of the individual. Accordingly, the basis for Sheridan’s commitment to academic freedom is found in a fractious group of English exiles living in Amsterdam in the early seventeenthcentury. In confrontational tracts and sermons, those first Baptists were among the earliest advocates for two foundation principles of modern democracy: freedom of conscience and freedom of association.
Apart from Sheridan College, sponsoring our conference are also the Australian Christian Lobby, The West Television, National Civil Council, Council for the National Interest, The Epoch Times, Family Voice Australia, Barnabas Fund, and The Western Australian Legal Theory Association.
So, why do we really need to hold a conference of this kind? Facebook may not wish us to acknowledge this truth, but Christianity is clearly under attack in our Western societies, including Australia.
As the celebrated Irish politician John Philpot Curran stated, in a speech in Dublin on July 10 1790: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”. He was absolutely right and these ongoing attacks on the free speech and freedom of association of Christian people and institutions must be resisted. Otherwise these attacks will inevitably lead us as a nation down the inevitable path of political tyranny via a more open or disguised form of elected dictatorship.
Dr Augusto Zimmermann is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan College, Perth; Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Law School, Sydney; and President of Western Australian Legal Theory Association, WALTA. He is a former Law Reform Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (2012-2019).
To know more about ‘Religious Freedom at Crossroads: The Rise of Anti-Christian Sentiment in the West’, visit the conference website.
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