Freedom laws needed

Russell Powell

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The Diocese of Sydney, along with a number of other Christian groups, has called for special legislation to enshrine freedom of belief as a “positive right” in Australia, rather than as a negative “exemption” to other legislation.

The call came in a submission to the Federal Government inquiry into the “protection and promotion of the human right to freedom of religion or belief worldwide, including in Australia”.

“Within the boundaries prescribed by law, we should be seeking to promote the greatest (not the least) possible freedoms of religion or belief”, said the submission, signed by Bishop Michael Stead – on behalf of the Religious Freedom Reference Group – and Dr Karin Sowada (above), who chairs the Social Issues Committee.

“It is not prudent for legislation to call on secular courts or tribunals to arbitrate on what is or is not a church doctrine, tenet, belief or teaching,” the submission said. “The law should provide for broad – not narrow– conceptions of ‘religion’ and ‘religious organisation’.”

The Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty likewise submitted that, “the various discrimination and equal opportunity laws do not recognise the right to manifest religious belief. Rather, exemptions are granted but, if challenged, are subject to the determination of tribunals and courts. Rarely do the religious rights of individuals succeed before tribunals and courts.”

Christian lawyer and expert on religious freedom, Associate Professor Neil Foster from the University of Newcastle, referred in his submission to a “patchwork” protection for freedom of religion.

“It is past time for consideration to be given at the Commonwealth level for protection of religious freedom to be the subject of special legislation,” he wrote. “The Commonwealth has undertaken to provide serious religious freedom protection by acceding to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights... it would be appropriate that this commitment be translated into law.”

The diocesan submission said possible changes in law relating to abortion, euthanasia and marriage could “create potential conflicts for many people of faith... We submit that there should be a general protection in Federal law that protects the individual’s freedom of thought, conscience and belief, which will prevent a person being compelled in the course of their employment to perform an action contrary to conscience or religious belief.”

More than 175 submissions have been received and posted on the website of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which is conducting the inquiry.

The subcommittee's chairman, Kevin Andrews MP, said, “Australians can also be justly proud that our country has not experienced the atrocious violations of this human right that have occurred elsewhere.

“Nevertheless, important questions touching on the right to freedom of religion or belief, and its relationship with other rights, have arisen in our own country in recent times. How we protect the freedom of religion or belief, promote religious tolerance and prevent violations or abuses of this right, may prove to be of significance to the wider, religiously diverse world.”

The diocesan submission agreed, saying our country could lead the way. “Australia has an impressive track record to date in supporting freedom of religion, and by continuing to foster and support the right to freedom of religion and belief we provide leadership and encouragement to other nations to do likewise.”