Five facts on Australia’s religious freedom review

Five facts on Australia’s religious freedom review

The Review of Religious Freedom is well underway with the Expert Panel lead by Hon. Philip Ruddock, set to hand down their findings on 31 March 2018.

Here are five facts on the review and how the Uniting Church is involved in this discussion.

  1. What are Australia’s laws on religious freedom and why is there a review?

Currently there is no federal level Religious Freedom Act in Australia. However Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia addresses legislation in respect of religion by stating:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

Australia also recognises Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which outlines the general human right to freedom of religion.

During the same-sex marriage debate in late 2017, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, appointed the Hon. Philip Ruddock to assess whether Australian law adequately protects religious freedom.

The review will also address how the change to the Marriage Act (now legalising same-sex marriage) will affect the freedoms of religious organisations, businesses, and services. A well-known example of this is an American court-case where Christian wedding cake shop owners were taken to court for refusing to bake a same-sex couples wedding cake on grounds of their religious beliefs.

The Expert Panel leading the review also includes, Australian Human Rights Commission President Rosalind Croucher, the Hon. Dr Annabelle Bennett SC, constitutional lawyer Nicholas Aroney and Jesuit priest Fr Frank Brennan.

  1. Who has made submissions to the panel?

At the submission deadline on 14 February 2018 the panel received more than 16,000 submissions. Among the various religious organisations and individuals, the Uniting Church Assembly and the Uniting Church’s LGBTIQ  Network put forward separate submissions.

  1. What is the Uniting Church response?

The Uniting Church Assembly published its submission yesterday, where the Church affirmed that it “opposes all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.”

The submission went on to say that:

“Any provisions for religious freedom should be driven by an overriding focus on enabling and maintaining a society which encourages mutual respect and is free from discrimination.” (Read the full submission here).

A concern is that exemptions to anti-discrimination laws based on religion will further discrimination against minority groups in terms of employment, health care, and access to other services.

At a hearing with the Expert Panel, the National Director of UnitingCare Australia, Claerwen Little, said the Uniting Church including its agencies’ opposed all forms of discrimination.

“Our agencies are open to all regardless of their race, religion or sexual preference,” Ms Little told the panel chaired by Philip Ruddock.

“As an Assembly agency and as the Church, we don’t discriminate in the way we employ our staff, or recruit our carers or with what we do in service,” said Ms Little.

In accordance to previous statements, resolutions and submissions to the government, the Uniting Church Assembly maintains that the most effective legislative provisions for religious freedom is through establishing a comprehensive Human Rights Acts.

  1. What is the rest of the religious community saying?

The Christian community in particular, has raised concerns that the current religious freedom laws don’t go far enough.  A Christian legal think tank, Freedom for Faith’s submission has been endorsed by a number of evangelical and Pentecostal churches that among their recommendations are calling for a Religious Freedom Act.

A Religious Freedom Act would expand exemptions to anti-discrimination laws for religious organisations in areas such as hiring and firing.

Christian Schools Australia, told the Guardian that “removing the ability of Christian schools to employ staff who share the school’s values and beliefs would undermine the essential nature of the school.”

The Uniting Church Assembly submission argues that the right to practice religion and freedom from discrimination under the law should be carefully balanced.

  1. What’s next?

As stated above the findings from the review will be announced on 31 March 2018. During this time the Expert Panel will conduct further consultations with stakeholders that hold diverse views on religious freedom. You can keep up to date with the review’s progress here.

Pictured: Hon. Philip Ruddock (Credit: AAP)

Melissa Stewart

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