Nearly seven months after former attorney-general Philip Ruddock handed his religious freedom report to the then Prime Minister, it has finally been released.
The weighty read (a 140-page document) was accompanied by the equally anticipated Government response.
Both documents will take time to digest – and some of the report’s recommendations are understandably light on detail – but there is a considerable amount we can already glean.
First and foremost, it’s encouraging to see the focus returned to preserving, rather than undermining, religious freedom. The recent manufactured crisis and faux outrage surrounding faith-based schools (that is, over enrolment and employment policies) did nothing to reassure those who have been holding to the seemingly-vain hope that politicians might take their concerns seriously.
Prime Minister Morrison, in the Government response, states that: “there is a requirement to ensure some enhanced standing protection for Australians’ right to freedom of religion, by giving it more weight in our community than it currently receives.”
Of the 20 Ruddock report recommendations, the Government will act on 14 of them as soon as practicable. The others, it says, will require a combination of consultation with those affected and/or legal consideration. Some recommendations are also issues for the states and territories.
So what is the Government proposing? Here are some key points.
- A Religious Discrimination Bill, to be tabled in parliament next year after an attempt to secure bipartisan backing. The bill would apparently “provide comprehensive protection against discrimination based on religious belief or activity”, though few specifics are available as yet.
- A General Amendment Bill, designed to promote religious freedom by altering a fair amount of existing legislation (e.g. to protect charities).
- The creation of a “Freedom of Religion Commissioner” at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
- The Australian Human Rights Commission would run campaigns to promote the awareness of religious freedom.
Numerous other recommendations have been accepted, including the argument to repeal remaining common or statutory law offences of blasphemy at state and territory level. In an environment where subjective laws against “offending” or “harassing” have caused much grief, this is definitely a good thing.
What to make of the key points above? Despite some reservations, we’re cautiously optimistic overall – but the discussion has barely begun and the detail is simply not there yet.
There’s a diversity of opinion among those of faith regarding a Religious Discrimination Act. Anti-discrimination laws, by their very nature, have a chilling effect that exceeds their supposed function. They serve to inhibit and restrict behaviour, rather than to promote positive rights.
There’s even a fear by some that expanding such legislation to cover the field of religion will end in tears with such laws misused.
Having said that, what we do know of the Government’s intentions, they appear to be headed down the right path. In seeking to protect discrimination on the basis of “religious belief or activity”, the bill would cover such fields as “education, employment, access to premises, the provision of goods, services and facilities and accommodation”. It would also still allow faith-based organisations themselves to discriminate in certain circumstances.
Notably, the bill would not permit anyone to bring legal action on the basis of “offence, insult or humiliation” (as per the notorious section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act). Importantly, the Government would also seek to prevent similar legal action against any person or organisation that expresses belief in man-woman marriage.
So, while there is significant consultation yet to be had – and much noisy politicking – the starting premise doesn’t seem as bad as some may have feared.
In fact, the Government has acknowledged a point made repeatedly by the Australian Family Coalition (in its submission to the Ruddock inquiry and elsewhere) regarding the term “freedom of religion”. In its response, the Government refers to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” – which the Ruddock inquiry also referenced.
This broader understanding of freedom is covered at length in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory. It spells out that freedom of belief is not restricted to those of faith, but to all people. We will have to wait and see, however, whether the shortened term “freedom of religion” actually covers non-believers when legislation is finally unveiled.
On the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission, many people of faith will likewise feel uneasy. This very body has previously waded into cases involving religion – playing the role of prosecutor, judge AND theologian – so this concern is hardly unfounded. Again, we await more detail on the proposal.
Going forward, there are essentially three immediate hurdles to this process.
- Getting the legislation right. This will be a real challenge – especially in the extremely short window before a federal election (i.e. no later than May 2019). To be more realistic, the timings now make this an election issue.
- Securing sufficient support in the parliament. This will be just as big a challenge. Given Labor’s recent hostility on the topic of schools’ and parental rights, it’s hard to see how the Government will secure Labor support for meaningful legislation.
- Potential legal challenges. There’s little doubt that as different “rights” come into conflict, legal recourse will be had. It may take months – or even years – but the question of whose rights win will almost certainly end up in court. That’s why it is so important that any religious freedom legislation be as well-drafted and comprehensive as possible.
More than a year has passed since the religious freedom review was promised – and yet it feels like we’re just getting started.