In this Aussie episode of November Discourse, Professor Carole Cusack and Ray Radford sit down with Dr. Breann Fallon to discuss religion as in Australian current affairs.

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In this month’s episode of discourse we have an update from Australia. Professor Carole Cusack (University of Sydney) and Ray Radford (University of Sydney and RSP) sit down with Dr. Breann Fallon (Sydney Jewish Museum and RSP) to discuss religion in Australian current affairs. This team of three first consider a conservative article on the amendments Equal Opportunity Bill in Victoria which claims “religion cancelled” and “parents cancelled.” Yet, there is no denying that the three are speaking from lockdown and the conversation turns to religious exemption from vaccination, including the history of this in Australia, as well as religious symbolism at anti-lockdown protests. To end the episode, the trio discuss the interesting timing of opening up in time for Christmas — is this an offering at the temple of consumerism? Whilst there is no answer, it is an interesting take on the impact of COVID-19 on religious festivals.

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Religious Freedom, Exemption, and Festivals in Australia | Discourse! November 2021 [transcript]

Religious Freedom, Exemption, and Festivals in Australia | Discourse! November 2021

Podcast with Carole Cusack and Raymond Radford (29 November 2021).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Jacob Noblett

Audio and transcript available at:


Anti-Religious Legislation, Consumerism, COVID-19, Discourse, Symbolism

Breann Fallon (BF)  00:00

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Religious Studies Project. We have a Discourse! episode, this time all the way from Australia with some very familiar faces. We have Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, Ray Radford, also from the University of Sydney and Associate Editor of the Religious Studies Project, and I’m Breann Fallon, of the Sydney Jewish Museum and also Associate Editor of the Religious Studies Project. Welcome Carole and Ray.

Carole Cusack (CC)  00:26

It’s wonderful to be doing this again, Breann.

Raymond Radford (RR)  00:28

Thank you, Bre. It’s good to see you again after so long.

BF  00:33

Yes, it has been so long. We should let everybody know that we are currently in lockdown, but before we get on to some articles in the news about vaccines and lockdown, I’d like to start off with something that’s not so COVID connected. It is an article Carole actually brought to our attention, which is something we discussed a couple of episodes ago, also in a Discourse! edition that we did, about some legislation in Victoria, and the idea of it being anti-family and anti-religion. Carole, can you fill us in on where we’re up to with this particular article?

CC  01:08

The reason I selected it is because it’s not mainstream news. It’s on a website called MercatorNet, which is conservative. I think that the interesting thing about it is that it broadens the scope for listeners who are outside Australia. We’ve got three levels of government; we have a federal government which is conservative. Every one of the states has a state government as well. At the moment, the state government of Victoria, which is led by Premier Dan Andrews, is, I would say, the most progressive state government we have in the country. It’s in Victoria that we’ve seen issues like banning gay conversion therapy, which we were in fact discussing in our previous podcast I believe, Bre. What we’ve got here is a larger piece by Andy Mullins arguing that the pattern of legislation emerging from the Andrews Labour government in Victoria is actually anti-family and anti-religion.

CC  02:18

Now, this is a bigger claim than anything that could come out of a single bill banning gay conversion therapy because a lot of religious people actually don’t think gay conversion therapy is a good idea and believe that it is a violation of human rights and so on and so forth. This is about some things that look pretty good for progressives, but which are being read differently by religious conservatives. For example, these are amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act. So, it’s not like the gay conversion bill, which was a distinct separate piece of legislation. It’s about an existing piece of legislation, and the attorney general in Victoria, Jaclyn Symes, was actually discussing these amendments to, for example, prevent the display of Nazi symbols.

CC  03:14

Now, I think Ray might have something to say about that, particularly given the protests against lockdowns recently. This was linked with arresting the progress of neo-Nazi activities in the community. She also proposed extending anti-vilification protections beyond issues of race and religion, which are the only two things that are presently in the Equal Opportunity Act in Victoria, and also to give the vilified access to court, in order to fight back against those who were hate speaking against them. The point is, all of that sounds great to left-leaning or liberal, open-minded progressives.

CC  04:04

The argument that Mullins makes is that what it does is restrict the presence of religion in a whole lot of areas, like schools and workplaces, because it also involves taking away some situations in which people with a particular faith orientation get preferential employment. I mean, that sounds reasonable. Bre, you work at the Jewish Museum, which is a magnificent institution, but it doesn’t employ only Jewish people. It has a team with a variety of religious and non-religious affiliations. Amongst the very conservative wing in Australia, this all is very disquieting. Typically, and traditionally, our churches have been exempted from Equal Opportunity legislation and exempted from any form of affirmative action program to employ, say, women or people of colour, because they’ve been allowed just to employ whoever they like.

BF  05:17

It’s a really interesting article that Andy Mullins has written, Carole, as you say, because it’s coming across as a full-form ideological attack. The language that is used is sort of “parents cancelled, religion cancelled.” There’s this sense that there aren’t the sort of protections that once were there. It’s on sort of a left-of-field media outlet. There’s this idea that he’s pulling back the so-called “curtain” on this ideological attack that’s going on.

CC  05:54

The thing that I think might be a good way of explaining to our listeners how very full-on Mullins’ article is, and I think Bre, you’re right reading out those subheadings: “religion cancelled.” What about the thing at the end, where he says, “Brothels will be able to exclusively employ prostitutes and those sympathetic with prostitution, but faith-based schools will be prohibited from employing only persons sympathetic to the faith of the institution?” I have to tell you, I actually think those two sentences alone really undermine the article; it shows that it’s an extraordinary claim. Just imagine a brothel that employed people who said, “Oh, sorry, actually, we won’t provide sexual services. Yeah, we have jobs here and you’re going to pay us all, but no.”

BF  06:45

There’s also another line in the article which we will provide, and it’s the kind of attack on the consultation process for the conversion therapy ban. He says that the Andrews government uses human rights as a smokescreen, and it has a sham consultation process for conversion therapy. The idea of human rights that comes through quite strongly in this article, which is really quite interesting because another article we’ll talk about in a moment also brought up human rights as a central concept. Throughout this article, different articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are mentioned.

BF  07:21

On Article 26.3, for example, there’s the idea that parents have the right to choose the kind of education that should be given to their children. There’s this interesting balance between the idea that human rights are being used as a smokescreen, but then they’re also being used as central for the argument for why these things are potentially a problem. There’s this interesting balance of using the left’s smokescreen against them in the article, but something that’s come up quite often is Christian symbols, the use of the crucifix, and the idea that “Jesus is my vaccine.” This is the segue into the second article that we’re going to talk about today, which is: will there be a religious exemption for vaccines, what’s the history of that in Australia, and how we’re kind of tracking with that so far? As I understand it, there’s only one example of a religious group being exempt from vaccines in Australia. Is that right, Carole?

CC  08:19

I think so, yes. It’s all very complicated because we have real difficulties here. If you let even one group, even a very minor group have an exemption, it opens the space to a raft of other groups arguing that they, too, should have an exemption. Now, the problem is that if the group is large enough, half of their members will get vaccinated anyway, because they don’t actually have a big issue with vaccination. It’s just the noisy minority that are really going to push strongly back against it. I mean, I guess we also have to have a little bit of a discussion here.

CC  08:47

Lockdown has exposed some real fracture lines in Australia around class because the people who’ve suffered most in terms of COVID infections and COVID deaths have largely been in suburbs that were less economically well off. where extended family groups often live together and where the younger people in these households were counted as essential workers, working in service industries and having to go to work, largely because the families simply were not affluent enough to have members not working. And you have, therefore, this real thing.

CC  09:46

Again, I think most rational people know that the gulf between rich and poor has been widening in most developed countries, and that Australia is no exception to that. The thing that’s interesting about the anti-vaxxers is that, as well as the religious groups, there are wealthy, upper-class, very well-educated pockets of people that appear in certain areas. The most obvious and most publicly discussed one is Byron Bay, on the North Coast, which is a very affluent area where the vaccination rates are radically below the broader community for every…

BF  10:30

And that’s for COVID and not COVID vaccines, as well?

CC  10:33

Yeah, for every kind of vaccine. The other thing that’s very important is that no religious exemption is invoked by those people. The exemption is more of a human rights, individual freedoms kind of exemption.

BF  10:50

100%, and the one group that has invoked that Christian, or that religious, exemption is Christian Scientists. In 1998, they were granted an exemption to the federal government’s “no jab, no pay” laws. In Australia, children have to be vaccinated to go to child care and receive family benefits. That’s the one exemption that we have. These fracture lines, Carole, that you’ve brought up, in terms of socioeconomic status and in terms of race work, we’ve also seen fracture lines in terms of different groups, in terms of lockdown, and these conspiracy groups rising. Ray, is that something that you think has been worsened by vaccines being made compulsory in certain workplaces, for example? Is it something that has brought more conspiracy groups into the public eye?

RR  11:40

Yeah, definitely. It’s also one of those things that people have been able to join together with. This is what I was going to bring up: forced vaccinations have led to a whole group of anti-vaxxers. Now, they are no longer calling themselves anti-vaxxers because that’s a bad term, they’re now pure-bloods. Yes, because they haven’t been vaccinated. That’s slightly Nazi era, blood and honour, blood and soil. You go call yourselves that, but the Melbourne protests of last week, the week before? How long ago? It was all the trainees, and then it turned out that it wasn’t actually trainees, it was just people wearing hi-vis. Then there was a whole bunch of people who have been instigators in the past who have done these CFMEU trade meetings or protests. One of them was that witch, the Bunnings Witch, from last year, who wanted to hex down Andrews and was there in hi-vis. I think it’s definitely brought a lot more out of the woodwork, so to speak.

BF  13:02

Yes, 100%. It’s brought the idea that, as you’ve said, we have people who are out in hi-vis claiming to be one thing, and that kind of reflects on a larger group of people. In this article that has been published by ABC News, this idea of religious exemption and whether you can prove that somebody did something truly on the basis of their religion, which is protected under anti-discrimination legislation, is something that’s come up with this idea of religious exemption. Carole, can you give us more of a sense of what it would mean to have a religious exemption for vaccines and the controversies around that?

CC  13:44

The first thing we have to say, I just think this might help people who don’t know Australia, is that we have 25 million citizens roughly. 974 people said they were Christian Scientists in the 2016 census, and we’ve just done the 2021 census, but the data isn’t available yet. The Christian Science community is very small, and it’s also aging. So, there’s a particular demographic there. Giving them a religious exemption, in my opinion really doesn’t count for very much. The only thing that is a problem is if they are seen as a gateway for other groups to be able to claim a similar kind of exemption.

CC  14:27

What you just raised, Breann, is one of the things that Ray and I talk about all the time. The big problem with religion is that if people think, as so many non-scholars tend to, that religion is really all about sincerely held belief, the problem becomes that you can’t actually know what anyone believes. You can look at their actions, and if their actions involve claiming a religious exemption and saying that they can’t be vaccinated on account of their religious beliefs, we’ve got two possibilities in the courts. The courts could say that they actually think that these people really do believe this, and therefore, they should have the exemption that they ask. Or they might come to the conclusion that they don’t really know what the people believe, and so they can’t.

CC  15:24

Now we have other cases where this is more pressing. So, for example, refugees is a really obvious one, “I cannot return to my country because I have converted to Christianity and I will be potentially killed if I’m sent back home.” How sincere is the conversion? There’s some really interesting work done on refugees and religion. I reviewed a book a couple of years ago that made a very interesting argument, at least one chapter did, that these new Christians who’ve converted in countries like Pakistan, or Afghanistan, when they’re questioned by immigration officials, they often don’t know very much about Christian doctrine.

CC  16:10

It doesn’t mean that they don’t have sincere beliefs, it means that they don’t have the kind of education that someone brought up in a Christian school and adhering to the Christian faith as an adult in a European country or a country like Australia or America would have, and then often they have been sent home because the assumption is that their conversion is not sincere. The minute we have to look inside a person, we have a lot of problems legally. You and Ray both know, the general argument is that public health has to trump any idea about individual freedom. And I know, Ray, we were discussing this on Facebook a little while back, and you actually said that you weren’t, per se opposed to religious exemption.

RR  17:04

This requires a few caveats, I feel. Things like, if you’re going to be against the public health orders, then maybe just stick to religious-affiliated hospitals. Don’t go clogging up the public hospitals when you eventually get COVID or sick and end up taking beds away from people who don’t have COVID or who need it. That’s one of the big problems in America. Well, mostly America, where people who are anti-vaxxers then get COVID and end up taking beds away from people who are sick and vaccinated and [have] easily fixed problems. I was reading a thing about a guy who broke his arm, and he had to wait two weeks before he could get into the hospital to get it fixed. There was another guy who got shot and had to wait a day in a gurney. There we go, before, he could actually get into hospital because all the beds are taken by people with COVID. If you don’t take the shot, go find a religious-affiliated hospital that can look after you. Even though in Australia, all the religious-affiliated hospitals are private hospitals, which means it’s a longer waiting list.

CC  18:23

There’s a greater cost involved…

RR  18:26

And greater cost!

CC  18:26

… because you have to have private health insurance to have your surgeries or your treatments covered.

BF  18:31

It’s an interesting concept, because this article, which is raising this idea of a religious exemption, at the moment, it’s almost been taken out of everybody’s hands. We have in Australia public health orders, vaccinated and unvaccinated, and without this religious exemption, you kind of fall into one of two categories and your freedoms are based on that. We could say, before we move on, to what one of our former justices, Michael Kirby says about this idea. It’s that Christian Science, which we’ve mentioned a couple of times as the one example of the community that has the religious exemption based on vaccines, they actually state that they’re not anti-COVID vaccine and they’re actually getting it for the benefit of everybody.

BF  19:24

It’s interesting that there isn’t necessarily a consistent point-of-view based on what is going on with public health. Former Justice Michael Kirby, who’s quite a prominent figure, and I will say I’m biased because I do know Michael personally through the museum, he really warns against this idea of excessive protection of religious freedoms. It’s quite a strong article, and in it, there’s a number of statistics that are put out—how useful they are, it’s hard to say. It states that 70% of Australians say religion is not personally important to them. I’m wondering if we can just get an overview of this article from you, Carole, because this one was your suggestion of Michael Kirby’s point-of-view here.

CC  20:11

I thought it was interesting, because everything that we’re talking about today in some sense is like a continuation of stuff we’ve talked about before. We did talk about this idea that Morrison and the federal government, our Conservative Prime Minister, wanted to introduce a religious freedoms bill. The reason why this article by Michael Kirby came to my attention was because the religious freedoms bill got stalled because the pandemic stopped so many things. It’s perhaps struggling back into the public eye.

CC  20:51

I just thought it was really interesting, too, because it ties in with Andy Mullins and his piece about Dan Andrews’s legislation partly because in both articles, the Rationalist Society of Australia is mentioned. I think that this is a group that has become more prominent during the COVID pandemic as well. They send me emails now, but I had never heard personally from them They have at least one member in the Victorian Parliament, as an independent. They are pushing very strongly the idea that if you’re non-religious in Australia, you should come out and say, “you’re non-religious in Australia.” I think, Ray, you probably have some thoughts on that, too.

RR  21:40

What, coming out as non-religious?

CC  21:42

Well, because it was part of that whole thing about the census as well. “Don’t write down you’re Catholic just because your grandparents were.” If you never go near a church, then don’t.

RR  21:57

Yeah, just write “no.” Wasn’t there the whole thing about this year’s census where “none” wasn’t an option yet, like “atheist” didn’t mean “none.” You actually had to write down “none” or “no religion.” That was a bit of a source of contention.

CC  22:11

I think there are always questions about the order of the religions that you can tick box, and the box that says other. Loads of different things might mean “no religion,” like secular, rationalist, atheist, or agnostic; and these things are not necessarily designating a connection to any group. I did think it was really interesting that the Rationalists are popping up all over the place.

RR  22:42

Yeah, I’d never heard of them until these articles. They may start sending me emails.

BF  22:49

Well, this idea of the non-religious movement leads us on to our final article, which is a nice one to kind of finish off with after we’ve talked about controversial things like Nazi symbolism and anti-vaccine groups. That is Christmas, consumerism, and Australia opening up just in time for us to spend an awful lot of money on the shelves of the Church of Consumerism, if you want to call it that. Ray, let’s start with you opening up just in time for us to spend a lot of money. What do you think?

RR  23:30

As soon as lockdown happened and we were unsure how long it would go for, my argument was always that we’d reopen before Christmas because of the love of consumerism. That was just me being cynical because I work retail on weekends at a bookshop. So that’s slightly nicer than other retail places. I mean, we need to get reopened at some point. At least we’re reopening. I mean, we’re reopening next week on the 11th of October. So, we got a couple of months before Christmas, at least a month and a half. I think the vaccination rates—once that whole system started getting rolling, and they managed to actually get it going to a point where you could go and get vaccinated at chemists or the GP. It’s working a lot better now than it was three months ago when all of this really happened and nobody could get a vaccination anywhere, regardless of the government constantly going, “get vaccinated, get a jab.” We’re reopening, yay! Then we can have a life again.

BF  24:40

You say you’re not cynical about the reopening. I’m not sure about you, Carole. The way that it’s been framed, this reopening, was always that it was for Christmas so we could be with our families, and it’s a time of togetherness and faith and this sort of thing. Civically, I see that as a smokescreen for our economy needing the money of Christmas. Where are you, Carole, with the cynicism on this one?

CC  25:11

I think that it’s such a funny sort of question. I’d like to take up Ray’s point about vaccination rates; we still only have 45% of the population double vaxxed. I actually checked the online vaccine tracker this morning. That’s for the whole of Australia. So that doesn’t count the people who’ve had the single dose, and it is absolutely true that for months, the government said, “go and get vaccinated,” and in fact, there were no vaccines in the country, I mean, hardly any AstraZeneca or nothing, and even then not perhaps great numbers of them. Thankfully, we have acquired dosages from Pfizer, and Moderna, and various other places; and now people can get vaccinated. In fact, it’s happening reasonably fast in our home state, New South Wales has done very well actually in rolling out vaccinations.

CC  26:10

Nobody’s quite sure about this reopening thing, partly because the numbers of new cases are still pretty worrying daily, and the deaths are worrying. Obviously, around the world, our listeners may think that we’re being precious snowflakes here, given that our infection rates and death rates are actually very low. The thing about Christmas, it links nicely with the last article by Michael Kirby, because it is a massive secular festival. I mean, it’s a festival for everyone, really. Even the groups that don’t celebrate Christmas, there are other festivals that occur around the same time, like Hanukkah, which is very holy for the Jewish community. Just because our laws have arranged it, that the Christian inheritance of Australia means that all the public holidays are around Christmas and Easter. Last summer, there was this thing about “oh, heck, we’re not going to be able to control COVID anymore, because it’s easy to keep people locked up indoors if it’s grey and freezing, and there’s nothing really for them to do. It’s a fine weekend, everyone’s gonna rush to the beach.” Now, that’s already happening.

BF  27:33

So in terms of the secular celebration of Christmas, do you think this is one example where actually secularism is winning out rather than our Christian heritage in terms of Australia?

CC  27:49

I truly don’t know. I think Ray is right. It’s largely about economic stimulus. As you said, we’d have to go out and spend enormous amounts of money at Christmas, in the temple of consumption. It’s interesting because I’ve made a lot of radio programs over the years, and Christmas and Easter are two times when everybody rings up. They say, “can you do 10 minutes telling us a bit about the traditions and bit about this and a bit about that.” It always gets really difficult at the end when I get asked, “so what are you doing for Christmas or Easter?” I always think, “nothing.” My family gets together, but my second sister, a very sensible woman, many years ago utterly banned present giving. She just said, “we’ve got so much stuff, and we don’t need any more stuff. Let’s stop this.” About five years ago, she banned birthday present giving as well on the same basis. It’s just ridiculous, we go we buy a child stuff that we don’t need and we just forget it. I’m really comfortable with that. I don’t mind getting together with the family. Yes, seeing a few friends on Boxing Day, maybe. New Year’s Eve, I’ve always absolutely hated and wanted to avoid.

BF  29:04

Think about how COVID has affected what you do on Christmas. Is it more about being together than it is about the stuff? That’d be an interesting study to do.

RR  29:17

Well, all I know is my oldest brother and my nieces live in Broken Hill. They come to Christmas again this year, which means I get to nap most of the day. That’s my Christmas plan.

CC  29:32

Well, I think that’s a good plan.

RR  29:34

Entertaining Uncle Ray, a bunch of overactive seven-year-olds.

BF  29:42

We might wrap that up there. We’ve talked about so much this episode in terms of COVID and symbolism and vaccines and consumerism. I’ll let you both go and enjoy what’s left of your lockdown because we’ll be out in a couple of weeks’ time. Thank you both so much for your thoughts and opinions on these current affairs issues, and we’ll see you on another episode of discourse soon.

CC  30:07

Thank you, Breann.

RR  30:08

Thanks, Bre.

Citation Info:

Cusack, Carole, Breann Fallon, and Raymond Radford. 2021. “Religious Freedom, Exemption, and Festivals in Australia | Discourse! November 2021”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 29 November 2021. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 29 November 2021. Available at: religious-freedom-exemption-and-festivals-in-australia-discourse-november-2021/

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