ACT government’s assault on religious freedom

In a disquieting move that has sparked concerns about the future of religious freedom rights, the ACT Government has announced its intention to compulsorily acquire the Catholic-run Calvary Public Hospital and takeover its operations as early as July this year.

Despite assertions that this swift transition would favour hospital staff and patients, the move has been met with considerable criticism and concerns the acquisition was prompted by Calvary’s policy of not providing abortions or supporting euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The Calvary Public Hospital is owned and operated by Little Company of Mary Health, a not-for-profit Catholic health care organisation, whose mission is “to provide quality, compassionate health care to the most vulnerable, including those reaching the end of their life”. Calvary has been operating the hospital since 1979 and had 76 years left of its contract before the ACT Government’s sudden announcement.

Despite the government’s assertions that the acquisition is not related to ideology, the forced acquisition comes shortly after the release of the final report of the government’s inquiry into abortion access in the ACT, which was scathing of Calvary hospital, characterising it as “problematic” due to its “overriding religious ethos”.

The report advised that the “ACT government advocate Calvary Hospital to provide all reproductive health services in accordance with human rights” (Recommendation 14).

This recommendation, combined with the impending enactment of euthanasia and assisted suicide laws in the ACT, provides a substantial political motive for the government to take control of the ACT's second public hospital.

This is especially pertinent considering Calvary Hospital's well-known stance on the ethical care for patients at the end of life and its opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The ACT President of the Australian Medical Association Walter Abheyeratna has also weighed into the controversy, telling ABC radio that it was “[i]mportant to deliver public healthcare services without being bound by ideology”.

Christian writer Stephen McAlpine described the sentiments expressed by Dr Abheyeratna as ‘risible’:

“It’s the subtraction story that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age: the idea that somehow if we rid ourselves of all the ideological religious dogmas and myths we somehow arrive at bedrock ‘reality’. We subtract the nonsense from the culture and we get truth. We are no longer bound by ideologies and are hence free to make rational decisions in the best interests of the public good”.

The ACT Government's decision has ignited deep-seated worries, not just among Catholics, but also across all faith-based communities, who feel their religious freedom is under threat.

Hospital staff, who were not consulted on the potential fallout of this decision, are also feeling the brunt of this disconcerting move.

A significant number of these employees work at the hospital precisely because its religious ethos aligns with their own values. 

This situation underscores the inadequacy of protections for religious freedom in Australia for both individuals and institutions, a problem exacerbated by the failure to pass the Religious Freedom Bill during the last parliamentary term.

Despite prior assurances from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that religious freedom would be a government priority, he has recently sought to diminish the significance of the acquisition, labelling it “a local issue”.

The potential ramifications of the decision are far from local, however. This move could serve as a dangerous template for other faith based institutions in Australia. As Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said:

This isn’t just about Calvary Hospital. If the ACT Government can do this to a Catholic hospital, what is to stop them from doing it to a Catholic school or aged care facility or welfare agency? What’s to stop the same thing happening to institutions run by other faith groups as well?

It’s also not just an issue for the ACT. If the ACT Government is successful in this radical action, it could serve as a blueprint for other governments as well.