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Negotiating the Sacred V: Governing the Family

Image: painting © Elizabeth Burns Coleman, 1996
© Elizabeth Burns Coleman, 1996

14 and 15 August 2008

Japanese Studies Centre Auditorium,
Monash University, Clayton Campus


Keynote speakers:

Recordings and papers

The Abstracts and Speakers link gives you access to the speakers and abstracts of the presentations at the conference. Some links to audio recordings and papers are provided, including those by John Bradly and Frances Morphy, who were interviewed on Radio National on 20 August 2008. Other papers will be added to the site as they become available.


Dr Elizabeth Burns Coleman, Monash University

Supported by English, Communications and Performance Studies, and Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, GovNet (an Australian Research Council Research Network) and CAPPE (an ARC funded Special Research Centre).


This is the fifth and final conference in a series called Negotiating the Sacred. These have been multi-faith, cross disciplinary conferences focussed on contributing to dialogue and exchange in a religiously pluralistic, multicultural society. The series began at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research ANU, in 2003, with a small symposium on the Concept of the Sacred. The project was continued with seed funding from the CCR and other grant bodies.

Conference Themes

Feminist legal scholars have long argued that the public/private division in law effectively creates ‘the family’ as a sphere that supports patriarchy and undermines the rights of women and children. In 2007, Australia was focussed on the rights of women and children in indigenous communities, against the claim that abusive practices are condoned or supported by cultural or religious traditions. It is also in the midst of an ongoing debate about homosexual marriage and the rights of homosexual couples to receive medical interventions to have children and to adopt.

The idea of the sanctity of marriage has led to the banning of homosexual marriages in Australia, as well as limitations on homosexual couples gaining certain medical treatments such as IVF. Recently, however, some state and territory governments have discussed different forms of recognition of homosexual relationships, and expansion of access to fertility treatments. In response to legal reform planned by the Victorian State Government, a multi faith group protested that the changes represented a move away from the “biblical and traditional paradigm of the family” (Swartz 2008). The idea of marriage, the group complained, has moved from sacrament to contract. Should the state be informed by religious values in relation to laws on marriage and the structures of families, or, in a liberal democracy, should it consider the family a contract? Indeed, should the state recognise the marriage laws of minority religious groups?

The structure of the family that is recognised by religion and the state may be the ground of moral duties, as well as legal obligations and rights. In some religions, such as indigenous Australian religions, dead ancestors may be considered an important part of the family to whom we have duties; this may be recognised in heritage law concerning the return of indigenous remains from museums. Yet, the wishes of people belonging to other minority religious groups may have their testamentary gifts to religious organisations tested against ‘objective’ standards that reflect dominant religious values about the family (Ridge, 2006, 140). Such variations in the law invite an exploration of the variety of ways in which religious values about the family are respected in law.

In the not so distant past, a marriage between people of Protestant and Catholic faiths was considered ‘impure’ (Akenson, 2004: 56-61). This institution of religion, Akenson argues, thus maintained one of the pillars of intolerance within Ireland. Minority religions that promote or allow polygamy, or communal lifestyles, may be suppressed or treated with suspicion. For example, Magistrate Gregory Levine suggested that in the removal of children from the Christian Evangelical group, The Family, in 1992, authorities acted against the sect without clear grounds In contemporary Western societies, the hijab has become not only the symbol of Islam, but the symbol of ‘patriarchal oppression’ and a dysfunctional family structure within it, yet for many Muslims, wearing the hijab may be a gesture of defiance against religious oppression (Kabbani, 1989). How does governance of marriage and the family within religious and secular law support religious prejudice and social dislocation?