Be heard on religious freedom

michael stead
Be heard on religious freedom image

A Federal Government review into religious freedom in Australia is currently underway, with public submissions closing on February 14. The review panel, chaired by the Hon. Philip Ruddock, has been asked to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.

The impetus for this review arose in the context of the same-sex marriage legislation, but the scope of the review is much wider than marriage-related issues. It goes to the fundamental role of religious freedom in Australia’s liberal democracy.

A recent report from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s human rights subcommittee concluded that the protections for freedom of religion in Australian law are very limited.

In its interim report on the Legal Foundations of Religious Freedom in Australia released in November 2017, the subcommittee examined Australia’s compliance with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and concluded that:

* “Commonwealth protection for freedom of religion or belief is limited... Constitutional protections are not absolute in their effect, nor do they prohibit such restrictions at state or territory level. There is no positive protection of religious freedom” (para 4.76).

* “The Commonwealth has failed to implement the range of ICCPR rights despite committing to do so” (para 2.33).

* Article 18(4) protects the rights of parents and guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”. This right is not currently protected (paras 3.33-3.36).

To this point in our nation’s history, formal legal protections for religious freedom have not been necessary, because our “live and let live” social compact has made space for people of all faiths and none to express their beliefs without fear of discrimination or persecution. But this has begun to change, as irreligious (and anti-religious) voices are increasingly setting the public agenda. The freedoms of conscience and speech that we have previously assumed can no longer be taken for granted.

The Ruddock Review is a key opportunity for Christians to contribute to a national conversation about religious freedom. On the basis of submissions to prior inquiries, it is likely that there will be many submissions arguing that Australia needs to wind back existing protections of religious freedom, especially in relation to anti-discrimination law. It is vital that Christians (and other those of other faiths) make well-argued submissions to the review panel.  

The Sydney Diocese is supporting the initiative of Freedom for Faith (FFF) to produce a very substantial submission to the Ruddock Review. The FFF submission was prepared by Professor Patrick Parkinson AM with advice and comment from a range of religious freedom experts and church leaders across the country. The FFF submission demonstrates that it is possible to enact the protection of religious freedom that Australia has committed to as a signatory of the ICCPR without seeking special privileges for people of faith, and without winding back non-discrimination rights of others.

The key recommendations of the FFF submission are:

* Reframing anti-discrimination law to move away from treating religious freedom as a grudging exception to discrimination laws and instead recognising a positive right to religious freedom.

* Extending the coverage of Federal anti-discrimination law so that religious belief is a protected attribute.

* Expansion of the Fair Work Act so that employers are under a duty to offer reasonable accommodation of religious belief in the workplace.

* Enacting a national Freedom of Religion Act, which would provide statutory recognition of the rights and freedoms recognised in ICCPR Article 18, and the associated rights of freedom of speech and of association. This would include explicit recognition of parents’ right to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs, and the associated right of religious groups to run faith-based schools and receive Government funding on an equal basis with non-religious schools. It would also provide anti-detriment provisions to protect faith-based organisations from, from example, discriminatory Government funding on religious grounds.

* Creating a National Religious Freedom Commissioner

* Amending other legislation to address anomalies not covered by recent changes to the Marriage Act (such as religious marriage celebrants, same-sex marriage exemptions for Anglican school chapels, and protection for charities).

The Sydney Diocese’s submission to the Ruddock Review fully endorses the recommendations of the FFF submission, and provides further comments in relation to Anglican schools and Anglicare Sydney. Many other churches and faith-based groups will also be endorsing the recommendations of the FFF submission.

It is vital that all those concerned about the protection of religious freedom in Australia make their voices heard. The FFF submission is available on the Sydney Anglicans website (sydneyanglicans.net/RuddockReview). Please make a submission to the Ruddock Review, in support of its recommendations. These can be submitted online ([url=https://pmc.gov.au/domestic-policy/religious-freedom-review/submission]https://pmc.gov.au/domestic-policy/religious-freedom-review/submission[/url]) or in writing, but submissions must be received by February 14. Written submissions should be mailed to:

The Expert Panel on Religious Freedom

c/o Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

PO Box 6500

Canberra ACT 2600

Bishop Michael Stead is chairman of the Religious Freedom Reference Group.