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Submission: Religious Freedom Review

Religious Freedom Review
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Parliament House, Canberra
2nd February, 2018

Submission:  Copies to all members of the Review Panel and PMC Secretariat:

Plain Reason exists to promote critical thinking, an understanding of science, and a need to work towards a fair, just, and egalitarian society based on a secular democracy.  Plain Reason is ‘religion-neutral’ but it does support the secular principle of full separation between Church and State.  While we subscribe to ‘freedom of religion’ we also need ‘freedom from religion’ — both are protected under the International Covenant of Civic and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Item 1.  The ‘Panel’ has an undemocratic bias towards “Religion” 

Secular democracy:  Since federation, religion has sought to override secular principles on which Australia was constituted.  Indeed, there is ample evidence that those who framed our constitution were clear in their belief that the nation should be a secular democracy.(1)      

More secular than religious:  A national IPSOS survey (2) in 2016 shows 78% of Australians believe that it is “very important” — or “somewhat important” — to “separate personal religious beliefs from the business of government”.  Support for secular values is also shown in Religious Affiliation results of the 2016 Census; passage of the Voluntary Assisted Dying law in Victoria; and the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage.

No disbenefit to religion:  While there has been a steady shift to non-belief since federation, religion has not lost any privileges or entitlements.  Indeed, concessions to religion have increased during that period and the very existence of this Religious Freed Review demonstrates its authority.  Items 2 and 3 refer.

Religion has not ‘silenced’:  Churches and religious lobby groups have mounted political pressure to set up this Review Panel, based on their concerns of ‘secular intrusion’ into social commentary.  The claim that churches have been “silenced” is patently untrue, with clear evidence coming from the public debate over same-sex marriage.  According to The Guardian, (3) media coverage gained by the Australian Christian Lobby was greater than the collective coverage by all YES vote campaigners; the graph (mid article) shows this conclusively.  There is no evidence that the Christian voice has been silenced in the ‘public square’.

Item 2.   Current laws serve to “promote” religious freedom:

Laws that allow religious discrimination:  We cite the Law Council of Australia (LCA) (4) who, on 9.10.15, lodged a submission to the then Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, and the “Religious Freedom Roundtable”.  It firmly stressed that Freedom of Religion already had “strong protections in domestic and international law”.  LCA comments on current protections include the following:  Already excessive!

  • Section 116 of the Commonwealth of Australian Constitution Act
  • Fair Work Act 2009 (Commonwealth)
  • Migration Act 1958 (Commonwealth)
  • Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Commonwealth)
  • Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Commonwealth)
  • Evidence Act 1995 (Commonwealth)
  • State and Territory laws also provide religious exemptions.
  • Section 14 of the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT)
  • Section 14 of Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic).
  • Religion also pays no tax (5) under the Charities Act.

Item 3.  Limitations to religious freedom:

There are NO laws that limit religious freedom:  Cited here is Law Council of Australia (LCA) research. (6)  It comes from the Law Council’s submission to the AHRC on ‘Religious Freedom’, dated 9.10.15.  There are no laws to prevent, in any way, people exercising their freedom to embrace and express any faith.

Indeed, the contrary is true:  Religious freedom is supported across society — and it has been given special privileges since colonisation.  Under various exemptions listed in Item 2 — religion may discriminate against citizens who do not subscribe to their doctrines.  Private religious schools, hospitals, aged care facilities and a variety of their private businesses are at liberty to hire only those employees (including for non-religious positions) who affirm allegiance to the faith.  They are free to dismiss and discriminate again members of staff who are deemed to have transgressed religious articles of faith.  It is effectively a ‘closed shop’.

Item 4.  How religions discriminate against others:

Examples of how religious belief impinges upon the rights of others.  Unlike the inherent characteristics of race, gender, and skin colour — or even being left-handed — religion is a matter of choice!

  • LGBTI citizens were maligned during a hostile 2-month ‘postal vote’ to change the Marriage Act; but they have been oppressed by religion throughout history, based on doubtful Biblical texts.
  • Churches continue to avoid paying compensation to abuse victims: Royal Commission.
  • Confidentiality of the confessional, contrary to Royal Commission Child Sexual Abuse findings.
  • Churches are uniquely tax exempt for “advancing religion”.(7) No every activity is a “charity”.
  • For-profit religious businesses (not charities) avoid tax at an $20b per annum. (8)
  • Religious institutions discriminate when hiring staff, even if the duties are secular.
  • $12b in taxpayer funds (9) going to private religious schools; parents should be ‘means-tested’.
  • Religious schools teach 40% of children (10) just one faith, contrary to secular values.
  • Public funds go to over 400 private religious schools (11) teaching the anti-science of creationism.
  • Home schooling is mainly religious, open to the indoctrination of children, against their rights.(12)
  • Church discrimination against women — regarding abortions, the clinics, clinicians, clinic staff.
  • Religious hospitals refuse abortions and related treatments based on religious dogma.
  • Church clinics can refuse contraception and fertility advice for girls and young women.
  • Female genital mutilation and male circumcision violate the human rights of young children.
  • Prayers in parliament undermine the secular integrity of the people’s House and Senate.
  • Segregated gender seating is permitted in universities (and elsewhere) based on religious belief.
  • Religious polygamy is allowed if the marriages have occurred outside Australia.
  • Women do not have equality in the religious hierarchies of Islam, or in Christian churches.
  • No protection for the non-religious against proselytising or coercion in religious institutions.
  • Public funding of Chaplains in public schools is a religious privilege that promotes religion.
  • Mandatory appointments of religious leaders on boards and panels, for a “moral” perspective.
  • That the ABS still asks a biased question on Religious Affiliation, giving a false ‘high’ for religion.
  • Certain faiths given legal exemptions to cruelly slaughter animals based on religious tenets.
  • Halal certification disadvantages consumers, when the arbitrary costs are passed on.
  • Blasphemy laws deny freedom of expression to question the origins and basis of religion.
  • Government exemptions for all religions, the Australian Christian Lobby, and World Youth Day.
  • Religions reject the rights of people, who are dying, to make end of life choices.

 Item 4.   Conclusion:

The clamour for “Religious Liberty” is a new concept that has been brought to Australia from the USA over recent decades.  It has become particularly well publicised in the media since community interest grew for  legalisation of same-sex marriage.  This phenomenon of “Liberty” is the catch-cry of dozens of charismatic and evangelical churches that have their roots in fundamentalist Christian communities in America.  Here in Australia, we should not follow the US trend, where the religious right campaign for legal exemptions to pursue “religious liberty” and openly discriminate against minorities.

The following recommendations may go beyond the narrow scope of this Religious Freedom Review, but all are relevant — they illustrate the degree to which religion has imposed itself on our secular society.  We do not need the divisiveness of a small section of conservative Christians and fundamentalist groups to further discriminate against a national majority who do not share their devout faith.

A secular community is an “inclusive” community — it should be a free, fair and egalitarian society that guarantees freedom for each citizen’s right to their own ‘thought, conscience and belief’.  It must not impinge upon the rights of others, or allow sectarian groups to dominate the social agenda.  We see many theocracies around the world — countries where religion represses and controls every aspect of human life.  That is not the life to which most Australians aspire.  We should avoid the American path to theocracy.

Recommendation 1:     “Discrimination against ‘secular’ employees”        

That the ‘right’ of religious organisations to hire “only” those applicants who conform to the employer’s faith be made illegal — to apply only to positions that do NOT require theological training for the role; and referring specifically to any religious organisation that receives public funding.  

Rationale:  Religion is large employer — 40% of children now attend religious schools — and thousands of staff are employed nationally in education, health, medical, aged care, and other private businesses run by various religious organisations.  Of all these available positions, the majority are ‘secular’ roles.  On that basis it is discriminatory to deny secular job-seekers the opportunity for gainful employment.

It is also in contravention of Article 18 (3) of ICCPR which states; ”Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect…the rights and freedoms of others.”  Religion employers overstep the law when using “faith” as a requirement for all positions, irrespective of ‘job descriptions’ that have no bearing on theological requirements.

Recommendation 2:     “Civil celebrants must not refuse to marry gay couples”

That the Panel reject submissions to give all marriage celebrants — both civil and religious — the legal right to refuse to marry same-sex couples.

Rationale:  Religious marriage celebrants already have the right to refuse to marry gay couples.  It should not extend to civil celebrants.  Those people either seek ‘religious celebrant’ status or cease to practice.

Recommendation 3:     “Retailers must not be given the right to refuse gay couples”

That the Panel reject submissions to allow ‘religious’ owners of retail services — within the marriage industries — to refuse service to same-sex couples.

Rationale:  There is no need for further religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.  All businesses have the ability to “politely” avoid trading with any member of the public, using some innocent pretext.  However, religious trader who wish to be vindictive towards gay couples should expect legal sanctions.

To avoid legal action, traders could be allowed to state clearly — on their shop fronts, and in all advertising — that they will not serve gay couples.  All members of the public are then fully aware that this trader has chosen to overtly discriminate against the LGBTIQ community.  And that might be financially damaging!

NOTE:  The ‘right’ of a religiously devout florist, baker or photographer to deny service to same-sex couples has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘religious liberty’.  Rather, it is a proxy for further religious entitlements.  We have removed blatant discrimination against the LGBTIQ community by legislating for gay marriage — for the Panel to create new discriminations is simply bowing to the religious lobby.

Recommendation 4:     “Other outstanding issues that limit ‘Secular Progress”

  • That all governments work for a ‘secular democracy’, and wind back our image as a ‘soft theocracy’.
  • That all religion is recognised as an ‘ideological choice’, not privy to special and exclusive legal privileges.
  • That a ‘right’ to indoctrinate children into religion, under ICCPR Article 18 (4), be rejected as it contravenes Article 14 (1) of the Convention on Rights of the Child.
  • That religious canon law, like sharia law, is clearly defined to be subordinate to civil law.
  • That “for-profit” religious businesses be subject to Taxation laws that apply to all private enterprises.
  • That Standing Orders be amended to discontinue the saying of daily prayers in parliament.
  • That mandatory reporting of all child abuse be legislated for personnel in all religious institutions.
  • That the anachronistic “confidentiality of the confessional” be removed, in order to protect children.
  • That public funds be withheld from private religious schools that actively teach creationism.
  • That public funds be withheld from all educational institutions that teach “only” a single faith.
  • That government funding be prioritised for all schools teaching “religion-neutral” secular education.
  • That single-faith private religious schools teach “philosophical ethics” and “critical thinking”.
  • That the government prohibit the fundamentalist religious indoctrination of children in home-schooling.
  • That religions, not taxpayers, pay compensation to all victims of abuse, when in their care.
  • That abortion laws be repealed in those state where they remain on the statute books.
  • That religion-based male circumcision or female genital mutilation be made illegal.
  • That common law blasphemy, in all states and territories except Qld and WA, be repealed.
  • That the government review laws that allow polygamy, where marriages occurred outside Australia.

Plain Reason


 (1)  SMH 3.6.04: Prof. Helen Irving:  Framers of the Constitution wanted Australia to be secular.

(2)  2016 IPSOS survey:  78% of Australians want religion separated from government.

(3)  The Guardian, 22.9.17, ACL gained more media coverage than all YES campaigners. (graph).

(4)  Law Council of Australia:  List of legal exemptions: No laws limit religious freedom.

(5)  SPA Report: While the tax-free figure $31b, tax avoid in for-profile activity is estimated at $20b.

(6)  Law Council of Australia:  List of legal exemptions: No laws limit religious freedom.

(7)  The Conversation 24.6.16:  Churches are uniquely tax except for “advancing religion

(8)  SPA Report: While the tax-free figure $31b, tax avoid in for-profile activity is estimated at $20b.

(9)  The Conversation 1.4.16:  $12b federal funds to private schools.  (stats and graph mid-article)

(10)  SMH 8.2.14, Marion Maddox:  Private religious schools teach 40% of secondary school children.

(11)  Marion Maddox:  Taking God to School: the end of egalitarian education?

(12)  Article 14 (1):  Protecting the rights of the child.


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