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Religious freedom in secular Australia

  • 17 December 2018


Seven months on, the Morrison government has published the Religious Freedom Review — a report of an expert panel chaired by Philip Ruddock. It has also published its response. The review was instituted by Malcolm Turnbull during the plebiscite on same sex marriage. Many 'yes' voters in the plebiscite were convinced that a change to the law of marriage would not make one iota of difference to freedom of religion in Australia.

Many 'no' voters were worried that the changes could be frightful. The debate which then erupted about religious freedom when Parliament was legislating to recognise same sex marriage highlighted that Australian legislation at the Commonwealth and state level for the protection of all human rights, including freedom of religion, was at best patchy.

The expert panel included a variety of viewpoints on how best to protect human rights. Having chaired the Rudd government's National Human Rights Consultation in 2009, I favour a national human rights act. Fellow panel member Professor Nicholas Aroney has written passionately and elegantly against a proposed human rights act in Queensland. So the panel did not go looking for the magic panacea of human rights protection.

Having heard from thousands of citizens about the deficiencies in the patchwork of legislation which usually focuses on discrimination, we agreed unanimously on proposed incremental solutions. We thought religious freedom needed better legislative protection at a Commonwealth level. We thought students and staff should be better protected in religious schools when it came to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or practice at variance with religious teachings. We did not think the sky was falling in after the plebiscite; nor did we think the patchwork deficiencies in human rights protections should be simply left alone.

In the absence of a constitutional bill of rights or a national human rights act, both sides of politics have responded pragmatically and sensibly each time we have signed up to an international treaty enhancing our commitment to human rights. Over time, we have legislated against racial discrimination, sex discrimination, age discrimination and disability discrimination in the wake of specific treaty obligations not to discriminate against persons on the grounds of a particular attribute. The Ruddock Committee thought the time had come for similar legislation prohibiting adverse discrimination on the basis of a person's religion.

We thought that was now all the more pressing, not because of the debate about same sex marriage, but because in an increasingly