9 Things You Should Know About Religious Freedom In Australia

Last Friday I attended  a conference on ‘Religious Freedom in a Multicultural World’, jointly hosted by the think-tank Freedom For Faith, and the University of Newcastle Law School (kudos to Associate Professor Neil Foster for organising it).

The speakers included people from a variety of backgrounds, including the Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen, and a number of notable legal scholars.

Religious Freedom photo

Most of the people I met were from a legal background, and apart from finding out that Suits doesn’t represent the real world of being a lawyer, I was greatly encouraged to see many in our legal profession taking freedom of religion seriously.

And so here are 9 things you should  know about freedom of religion in Australia:

1) Freedom of Religion Is Not Taken Seriously In Many Modern Democracies, including Australia.

This point was made by an International Law expert,  Englishman Dr Paul Taylor. Countries like Australia have signed up to various UN treaties on freedom of religion (e.g. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), but we haven’t translated these treaties into Australian law.

Which means that these treaties are about as effective as an ashtray on a motorcycle when it comes to protecting religious freedom in Australia.

Although there is a ‘Free Exercise’ Clause in section 116 of our constitution, that would (in theory) guarantee religious freedom, this has been interpreted narrowly by the High court, meaning that it’s protection is limited.

There is no Federal level ‘Religious Freedom Act’, that would protect religious freedom, nor is there any such comprehensive legislation at the State level. (UPDATE: Victoria’s  “Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities” might be an exception – see the comments section, below).

Which means that when it comes to the NSW education department’s recent policy that:

[Public school] students…[must] not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith in the course of school authorised activities’

this (draconian) policy cannot be directly challenged by any particular ‘religious freedom’ law.

2)  The Australian Human Rights Commission Is Taking Freedom Of Religion Seriously.

Tim Wilson, the head of the Australian Human Right’s Commission, gave the keynote address on ‘Religious Freedom in a Pluralist Australia’.

Tim is pro-SSM and gay, yet unlike some others in his community he sees religion playing a very important (and positive) role in the lives of many Australians. Hearing this from the head of the Human Rights establishment was a breath of fresh air: all too many secular elites write off religion as irrelevant to a modern society (at best), or  dangerous.

Tim Wilson recognises that a change in marriage law would have implications for freedom of religion, and he is keen to work towards suitable accommodations should the law be changed. The fact that he recognises this blew me away: these days Christians are often told to give up their claim to religious freedom.

3)  Human Identity Drives Public Policy.

Dr Peter Jensen made the point that underneath traditional western views of religious freedom is a comprehensive view of humanity: in large part the Judeo-Christian view of humanity. Namely that all human beings have inestimable worth, and are to be treated with a unique dignity that is different from animals.

This has driven so many of the laws and rights we take for granted, not least freedom of religion.

Of course, as Christianity leaves the western building, another view of human identity is replacing it (which I’ll explore below), and this worldview is leading to some very different public policy directions.

4)  Christianity (Like Many Other Religions) Has Inevitable Public Consequences.

This is one point that so many secular people don’t seem to get: Christianity isn’t some private religion that you practice in your own time, and once a week in a church building: it actually changes a person’s view of reality such they live their whole lives differently.

At it’s best and most authentic, Christianity drives and inspires a person to serve their neighbour, even at cost to themself. This works its way out in numerous ways: in famous people like the abolitionist William Wilberforce, or civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr; the Christian charity that’s set up to serve the poor and marginalised; or the Christian lawyer who declines to take on a case that promotes the porn industry.

And so freedom of religion is about protecting a Christians’ (and all people’s) freedom to act in accordance with their identity and conscience, whenever possible.

5)  Many Public Intellectuals Have Ditched Christianity, and Assumed a Secularist Worldview. 

Most of the people of influence in this country are driven by a view of reality that isn’t Christian. It’s a view of reality that isn’t all that different from John Lennon’s famous song Imagine:

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky


Imagine there’s…no religion too

This view of reality is just assumed by many of the secular elite in our culture. It’s not even argued for: if you don’t agree with this view of reality, then you’re just assumed to be irrational, unscientific, and possibly even dangerous.

But here’s the thing about the Secularist worldview:

6)  Secularism Is Not a Neutral Worldview.

Professor Rex Ahdar from the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago (NZ) picked up on this in his session ‘What Lies Beneath’, and he writes:

Secularism is often treated as a sort of absence. It’s what is left if religion fades. It’s the exclusion of religion from the public sphere but somehow in itself neutral.’

But Professor Ahdar disagrees with this assessment:

This is misleading. We need to see secularism as a presence, as something, and therefore in need of elaboration and understanding.’

So what is secularism, in his view?

Whether we see it as an ideology, a worldview, a stance toward religion, a constitutional approach, or simply an aspect of some other project – of science or a philosophical system – secularism is something we need to think through, rather than merely the absence of religion’

Ideas have consequences. And the secularist worldview that is assumed by many drivers of our modern culture has massive consequences, not least the push for confining religion to the private domain, thereby limiting the free exercise of religion.

7)  Freedom of Religion is About More Than Laws: It’s Also About Social Regulation.

Dr Renea Barker, from the University of Western Australia’s School of Law, gave a fascinating talk on Muslims in modern day Australia. Whilst they have the same legal freedoms that any other religious minority has, they cop a greater deal of social hostility, as they try to practice their religion (think ‘Ban the Burqua’; and the opposition they get from the local communities to building Mosques).

In other words, for a society to have genuine religious freedom, there needs to also be a social acceptance of religious people: and this is something that many Muslims don’t feel they have in modern Australia.

And, can I say, this is something that we Christians should be able to relate to: at the very least there is growing social hostility to Christians in various quarters (e.g. on some university campuses; and in the mainstream media).

8) Religious Institutions That Receive Money from Caeser Should Still Be Allowed To Hire And Fire According To Their Religious Convictions.

This was a particularly challenging one for me. Both secular and Christian commentators assert that if a Religious organisation (e.g. school or charity) receives money from the government, then there are strings attached in how that money can and should be used, in that you can’t expect to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring/firing.

But Dr Greg Walsh, from the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, made the point that we don’t have this hire/fire hangup when it comes to non-religious organisations.

He gave the hypothetical example of an indigenous organisation, that wants to promote indigenous culture and indigenous affairs: if they wish to receive money from government, should they be forced to hire non-indigenous people?

9) Christians Have Good Reason To Care About Religious Freedom.

I sometimes hear the question: why should Christians care about religious freedom? After all (the argument goes), the Church was born into a situation of severe persecution: why should we expect, or even want, anything different?

In discussing this question personally with Neil Foster at the end of the conference, two main reasons came to mind: firstly, because of biblical precedent (the apostle Paul fought for his religious rights via legal means – see Acts 16:37-38; Acts 25:6-12) but secondly, out of love for our neighbour.

That is, the logic of the gospel is that people must be free to believe it, or disbelieve it, as they see fit: we Christians must not impose the gospel on others: rather we pro-pose: the gospel is the great proposal, the great invitation to the end of time wedding banquet with the Lord Jesus Christ (see also 2 Cor 4:2).

And so people of all faiths (and none) should be free from all religious or secular coercion, whenever possible. Such coercion violates our neighbour’s humanity, and thus loving our neighbour means protecting them from such coercion.

So, if I learned anything at this conference, it’s that religious freedom is definitely worth fighting for.



Photo: Dollarphotoclub.com

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9 thoughts on “9 Things You Should Know About Religious Freedom In Australia

  1. Hi Akos,
    Great article, thanks for posting this, was really interesting and helpful hearing about the conference, especially as a former lawyer and now pastor!

    Just on your first point about there not being any comprehensive legislation protecting religious freedoms at State level, I’m interested to know if anyone discussed the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities that we have here in Victoria and what they thought about the freedom of religion protection it offers? Both section 14 and 19 provide protection to freedom of religion, you can view it here:

    Was this raised at the conference?

    • Hi Dan!

      I did hear something mentioned about the Victorian Charter, but I can’t recall it being central to the conference. I’ve asked someone else to come give you a more comprehensive answer (wait out).

      • Hi Dan, Akos asked me to comment! The first speaker, Paul Taylor, gave a bit of an overview and did mention the two Charters in Victoria and the ACT. So yes, they do in theory provide some religious freedom protection in those jurisdictions. But I think there are still some doubts about how much weight the courts in those jurisdictions will give to religious freedom, and I think in Victoria there may need to be some litigation to test, for example, whether the current Victorian government’s views on removing exemptions or “balancing clauses” from church schools etc is really consistent with proper religious freedom protection. I think Paul may also have mentioned that the overall “qualification” provisions under the Charters (see eg in Vic s 7(2), “reasonable limits as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom”) are a bit broader than provided in the actual international instruments themselves- see eg art 18(3) of the ICCPR, which only allows qualification of religious free exercise “subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect
        public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
        Of course those of us not in the enlightened jurisdictions of Vic and the ACT don’t have any over-arching protection of religious freedom under State law. If you are interested I have a detailed paper reviewing religious freedom protections in Australia at http://works.bepress.com/neil_foster/94/ .
        Neil Foster

        • Thanks Neil, a very helpful analysis to how these provisions could be rejected and how the competing public interests argument could be used against or at least to curtail freedom of religion, thanks for taking the time to respond, I’ll be sure to read your paper. Cheers.

    • Hi Chris!

      Thanks for your comment!

      I do have a Liberatarian streak in me, and would be very hesitant to ask money from government, for Christian purposes.

      However, in my humble opinion, the government can do a great deal of good by funding institutions such a religious schools. This would be in the wider public’s interest, not least because such schools often provide a greater choice for kids and their parents.

      Same again for adoption agencies, and charities.

  2. While I agree with the sentiment that freedom of religion (as a human right) needs protection, the concern i have has been the lack of advocacy from Christians about wholistic human rights protections in Australia.

    Recently, i wrote on the subject based on my masters dissertation research on the national consultation of human rights:

    “Christians were seen to be speaking passionately for increased protections for religious freedom. But they also denounced or appeared indifferent to the opportunity for broader human rights protections for all peoples.

    Read my article in response to George Brandis here:


    If Christians had not been the primary opponent of a human rights charter for Australia 5 years ago, we may have had better protections for religious freedom and seen justice and the common good increased. Instead we have a debate based around religious freedom ‘or nothing else’ when it comes to human rights protections.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jacob.

      I do recall discussion around a charter of human rights. What you say is very interesting, and I will look into it!