“I truly believe there is no significant change without significant relationships, and humanitarian acts rooted in the sincere desire to heal and listen and cooperate and respect are the most potent transformational agent for change as anything I’ve experienced,” said Sister Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency.
Sister Eubank addressed legal scholars and leaders of faith-based organizations at a religious freedom conference on the Sydney campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia, on Feb. 15.
“This isn't just something we do because it's noble or it helps society. It's something that we must do because of our deeply held belief that we're all brothers and sisters,” added Sister Eubank.
A public conversation is currently underway in Australia as the country’s Parliament considers changes in legislation to protect religious freedom. “I was so glad to be invited as a humanitarian actor — even though I'm not a scholar — to be part of this conversation because it cannot be the right conversation if it doesn’t involve the voices of governments, secular organizations such as universities and religious actors together,” Sister Eubank said.
“There's no real protection of religious freedom in Australia,” said Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, Tasmania. “We now need to find out how we establish this as an aspect of law that we recognize religious freedom in particular, but freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and this needs to be enshrined in law in Australia.”
Neville Rochow, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia and University of Adelaide said, “We have Section 116 in the [Australian] Constitution, which is very similar to the First Amendment of the United States, but it's never been interpreted as being something that confers rights. Rather, it prohibits government from doing certain things. It has no limitation, and that only applies to the federal government and not the state governments.”
Paul Babie, law professor at the University of Adelaide, also attended the conference. “My call to action for everyday citizens would not be limited merely to religious freedom but to say that freedoms, fundamental freedoms, fundamental human rights, fundamental civil liberties are issues that matter to everyone,” he said.
Philip Ruddock, a former member of the Australian Parliament, is chairman of an expert panel to provide recommendations to national government leaders by the end of March.
“Australia is a society that has drawn people from all over the world. We have people of many faiths,” said Ruddock. “We are going to opine on those issues, give some advice to the Parliament, and hopefully if we do it and a mission in a sensible way, we might be able to improve the legislation to ensure the people's right to be able to worship as they see fit.”
Keith Thompson, associate dean of the law school at the University of Notre Dame Australia, was one of the conference participants who discussed the critical role faith-based groups play in protecting religious freedom. “The same prejudice that would tread on the head of a person of Muslim background today will tread on a Christian tomorrow, and so we are all in this together. We must look after their human rights, their right to religious freedom, their entitlement to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. We have to look after that as preciously as if it was our own.”
“I think in public debates, it's vital to have a religious perspective, given the current time in Australia the way our society is changing,” added Archbishop Porteous.
“If I could give any advice to Australians, it would be stand up, get educated about the issues, find out about religious freedom. This is a part of what we can do, particularly as women in the Church. Stand up and let our voices be heard,” Sister Eubank concluded.
This is the second time a Latter-day Saint leader has spoken on the Sydney campus. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles delivered an address on religious freedom at the law school May 27, 2015.
During her visit to Australia, Sister Eubank also participated in meetings with Latter-day Saints in Sydney and Adelaide. Local government leaders who work with the refugee population attended a gathering Wednesday evening for Mormon women and young women at a Sydney area chapel.