Never-ending inquiry into religion to keep on keeping on

Civil Liberties Australia featured several times in the April 2019 report of a federal parliamentary committee inquiring into religious freedom in Australia.

In its most recent report, the committee said that Australia’s laws must change to align with international conventions on freedom of religion or belief. Australian law should fully align with Articles 18 of both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.

But its main recommendation was that the committee continues in the next (46th) parliament, for which we’re voting in May 2019. In other words, the committee inquiry that began in December 2016 will probably take until 2021 to reach a firm conclusion.

And even this current extended process is not the first time that the same committee has examined the same issues. In 1999, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, asked the committee to inquire into Australia’s efforts to promote and protect freedom of religion and belief. The Committee’s report, Conviction with Compassion, was presented in 2000.

In April 2019, the Second Interim Report into Freedom of Religion or Belief was tabled by the chairperson of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Kevin Andrews.

CLA notes that it is ironic that Mr Andrews is the MP behind the law that prevents the ACT and NT having freedom to enact their own legislation, with federal government veto. He introduced the bill to enable a veto so that neither territory could legislate ‘dying with dignity’ laws.

Ruddock Review into Religion

The Second Interim Report also carries details of the “2017/18 Religious Freedom Review” – better known as the Ruddock Review into Religion, because veteran MP Phillip Ruddock was entrusted in with the task.

The new report contains Ruddock’s recommendations, as well as the government response to them.

What CLA said

The serially non-achieving committee did at least record some useful observations in its Second Interim Report – here are the ones by CLA:
Second Interim Report: freedom  of religion and belief, the Australian experience 190403: excerpts…

  • 106  Variations of this general argument are given by a number of submitters.137 Civil Liberties Australia also made similar statements at the Canberra public hearing, who argued that religion is given preferential treatment and has greater political clout:

The atheists or the nonbelievers or the agnostics are not unified in a lobby group the way the various religious groups are. The religious groups do have far more power and far more sway with politicians because of their voting strength and their lobbying ability than do the disparate people who are agnostics or atheists or nonbelievers. The weight of the religious sector outweighs its representation in the community, and I think thats a bad thing.138

138  Dr Kristine Klugman, President, Civil Liberties Australia,                                         Committee Hansard, Canberra, 22 June 2018, p. 23.

Exemptions to anti-discrimination laws

  • 108  The most significant example of alleged privilege or preference given to religion, or to Christianity in particular, is that of religious exemptions in anti-discrimination law. Civil Liberties Australia warns against an “emerging trend to argue that respect for freedom of religion requires special exemptions for religious believers from anti-discrimination and other laws”, citing such exemptions in the amended Marriage Act as an example.139

139  Civil Liberties Australia, Submission 47, p 2.

  • 113  Many submissions have raised concerns about the federal government’s funding of religious chaplains in public schools. The school chaplaincy programme, which funds almost entirely Christian chaplains, is described as a “particularly egregious example of religious discrimination” by Civil Liberties Australia,150

150  Civil Liberties Australia, Submission 47, p 3.

Opening of Parliament

  • 118  Dr Luke Beck, who appeared before the Sub-Committee in Sydney on 6 June 2017, has commented on the opening of Parliament with prayers. He argues that not only does this grant “official imprimatur” to Christianity, but it is “distinctly Protestant” and, specifically, Anglican.160
  • 119  Civil Liberties Australia says that ending this practice would “confirm the separation of religion and state in this country”.161 The Secular Party of Australia made similar comments.162

161  Civil Liberties Australia, Submission 47, p 3.

3.122  Civil Liberties Australia (CLA) argued that the “rights of atheists must not be ignored”, observing that atheists are actively discriminated against and sometimes killed in parts of the world such as Bangladesh.165

165  Civil Liberties Australia, Submission 47, p 2.

  • 16  Civil Liberties Australia favours a “legislative charter of rights”, supporting the recommendations of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee chaired by Frank Brennan. 14 This Committee recommended a Human Rights Act along the lines of the Victorian and ACT instruments which would enumerate human rights, require new legislation to be compatible with these rights, and provide for the High Court to declare legislation incompatible and refer it back to Parliament.15
  • 17  Civil Liberties Australia also commended the process used in Canada, where a statutory bill of rights was introduced with the intention of holding a constitutional referendum after 25 years. The bill of rights was approved by the Canadian population and became enshrined in the Constitution. Bill Rowlings called this “an excellent model for Australia”, stating:

Some people are afraid of a bill of rights. We would say 25 years is not an unreasonable time to have people settle down and see how it works…16

16  Mr William Rowlings, Chief Executive Officer, Civil Liberties Australia, Committee Hansard,  Canberra, 22 June 2018, p. 22.

2nd Interim Report, Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief , House of Representatives, Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, April 2019 Canberra

https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Freedomofreligion

 Hearing: Friday 22 June 2018 Canberra   Attendees included:

Civil Liberties Australia

  • Dr Kristine Klugman, President
    § Ms Elly McLean, Member (as she was then, now Director)
    § Mr William Rowlings, Chief Executive Officer
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