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Submission: AHRC “Religious Freedom” Roundtable 18.2.16

Note:  One 5.11.15 the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) held a “Religious Freedom” roundtable, ostensibly for religious organisations.  Belatedly, forums were arranged for “non-faith” groups (18.2.16) and LGBTI groups (19.2.16).  While many topics may be raised at these “Religious Freedom” events, a central issue relates to legal changes faced by the federal government, once same-sex marriage is finally legalised.

Churches clamour for new exemptions to anti-discrimination laws — to allow “religious conscience” for wedding industry retailers to refuse goods and services to gay couples.  Surprisingly, some “non-faith” groups support such exemptions, for reasons which remain unclear.  Other groups, however, oppose any form of same-sex discrimination.  Plain Reason’s submission falls squarely in this latter category. 

Mr Tim Wilson                                                                                           7th February, 2016
Human Rights Commissioner
GPO Box 5218
by email

Dear Mr Wilson,

                             Re:  Religious Freedom Roundtable – ‘non-faith’ on 18.2.16

Thank you for your invitation to attend the AHRC forum.  I would like to accept on behalf of Plain Reason, and to submit comments and make several recommendations.  The submission includes:

1.0        Issues Paper:  Comments.
2.0        Guiding principles:  Comments.
3.0        Questions and items for discussion.
4.0        Recommendation

1.0   Issues Paper:  Comments.

1.1  Roundtable title:  Article 18 of the ICCPR — and more importantly, General Comment No 22 of the UN Human Rights Committee — clearly refers to “theistic, non-theistic and atheist beliefs” being equally protected under the covenant.  This has not been fully explained in AHRC publicity and documentation.

“Religion” is not the overarching descriptor in the ICCPR covenant, it is merely a subset to “conscience and belief” – equal to atheism and non-belief.  From a public and media perspective the Roundtable title of “Religious Freedom” gives the distinct impression that religion has no freedom.  This is wholly deceptive.

The first recommendation from this ‘Non-Faith’ Roundtable needs to correct this obvious error and to rebrand the entire program as Freedom of Belief – or even “Freedom of Belief and Religion”.  At the very least it should reflect the AHRC’s own Report: “2011 Freedom of Religion and Belief for the 21st Century”.

1.2  Introduction:  AHRC Item 1 is misleading: s.116 relates only to religion and provides blanket protection, particularly clauses 3 and 4 when coupled with ICCPR Article 18.  The final paragraph of Item 1 refers to the 2011 Census.  There are many polls that show Australia’s population is now predominantly non-Christian, not the redundant 61% claimed.

1.3  Consultation: Rights and Responsibilities:  Item 2.  AHRC’s 2015 Report (page 21) shows only 10% of respondents who believed religion was not protected.  This rose to 25% by including those who felt religion was only “slightly” protected.  For 75% it is not a major issue!  This does not fit with the Commissioner’s statement that “A central theme to the consultation was the importance of religious freedom.

1.4  No diminished voice:  The fears of a Christian minority – relating to ‘secular intrusion’ – are covered in items 1.5 and 1.6.  There is no evidence that religion’s voice is diminishing in the ‘public square’ – on the contrary – it is as loud as ever.  In 2015 the Churches gained enormous media coverage with their list of demands, once same-sex marriage is finally legalised in this country.  References are too numerous to cite.

1.5  Laws that promote the right of religious freedom:  AHRC Issues Paper: Item 4.1.

  • These are too numerous to list here.  We cite the Law Council of Australia (LCA) list from the Law Council’s submission to the AHRC on “Religious Freedom”, dated 9.10.15.
  • There are more than sufficient laws to protect religion.  Further exemptions are unnecessary.’Religious Liberty’ is a term now being promoted by Christian lobbyists.  They seek to convert the concept of ‘freedom of thought’ to a right for ‘religious action’ to discriminate against minorities.
  • Calls for ‘Religious Vilification’ laws by Churches are divisive and should be resisted in Australia.

1.6  Laws that limit the right to religious freedom:  AHRC Issues Pager:  Item 4.2.

There are none.  We cite here the Law Council of Australia (LCA) research from the Law Council’s submission to the AHRC on “Religious Freedom”, dated 9.10.15

  • Laws to protect minorities are generally made to ensure the vulnerable are not discriminated against – on race, sexual orientation, et al.  Personal faith is protected but religious institutions do not have the right to use Church doctrine to victimise those who don’t share their beliefs.
  • We must not disadvantage minorities – who are protected under anti-discrimination laws – by providing new exemptions to those laws for religions which, themselves, are fully protected.  People of faith have clearly defined rights under Article 18 of the ICCPR Covenant.
  • Section 4.0 outlines just some of the religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws that serve only to privilege religions, disadvantage minorities or discriminate against non-Christians.

1.7   Religious freedom in public services where funding is provided by government.  Refer to AHRC Issues Paper, Item 4.3

The separation of church and state is an essential principle clearly intended by the framers of Australia’s constitution.  Here we cite Prof. Helen Irving, an expert in constitutional law.

  • The right of citizens who receive public services from government funded religious organisations – whether in education, health, aged care, welfare of other fields – are currently not protected from religious proselytising or coercion.  The law needs to change, to provide public protection.
  • Staff employed by a religious service-provider need not adhere to the faith of the Church employer.  An example would be staff providing a public service to non-faith citizens – especially in such areas as youth employment agencies, welfare recipients or aged care patients.
  • Service recipients with no faith (or a different faith) should not be subjected to real or subliminal proselytising – or worse, denied service, based on their lack of belief in the provider’s core faith.
  • Exemptions from anti-discriminations laws should not apply to religious organisations that provide public services – particularly where services are funded by any tier of government.

1.8   Mechanisms to support religious inclusion:  AHRC Issues Paper:  Item 4.5

  • These mechanisms already exist in abundance.  Religion has no bar or exclusion. On the contrary, religion holds a predominant position in public, media and social interaction.
  • Impediments to religious inclusion stem from religion itself.  Their individual dogmas and doctrines are inherently divisive – not only to other religions but to the predominantly secular public.

2.0   Statement of purpose and guiding principles:

2.1  Forum title:  It has already been stated in point 1.1 above that the forum title is wholly misleading to the public and to the media.  It presents a distinct bias and an image that, somehow, religion does not command a substantial level of “freedom” across the entire Australian society — from government, the judiciary, the media, commerce and the public at large.  To balance the ledger – and to give secular citizens and equal hearing – this AHRC program needs to be rebranded as “Freedom of Belief and Religion”.

2.2  Agreement:  Plain Reason subscribes to all principles of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.  However, “religion” is merely a subset of the values in Article 18 and, as such, has no special entitlements or privileges over and above those given to people with “non-theistic and atheist beliefs.”

2.3  Mutual respect:  Human Rights is about protecting the rights of people, not concepts.  So while all people of belief (or none) must share a mutual personal respect, there must be an equal right to discuss and challenge the ideas/beliefs of others, within the bounds of the ICCPR covenant and UNHRC principles.

2.4  Guiding Principles:  “Religious Freedom” – including ALL beliefs, or none — is relevant only to items listed under 1 to 12.  Clarification is needed for items 4, 7, and 11.

  • Item 4 relates specifically to people of faith where ‘exclusions’ may exist under ICCPR(3).
  • Item 7 incorrectly uses the word “faith” to exclude those of “non-faith or atheist” views.
  • Item 11.  “Faith” groups working with governments to protect religion is open to challenge.

3.0   Questions and items for discussion:

3.1  HRC agenda:  Will the 18.2.16 agenda be streamlined to avoid repetition from the 5.11.15 forum?  We see valuable time being wasted on several Issues Paper items which can be covered quickly in 3.3.

3.2  Forum title:  That the forum be rebranded as ‘Roundtable for the Freedom of Belief and Religion’.

3.3  Questions arising from the “Issues Paper” – items of importance that need clear answers.

Noting that the Human Rights Commissioner has considerable influence in how future legislation might be framed, once same-sex marriage is legalised, it is pertinent raise specific questions.

  • Marriage Act:  Is the Commissioner aware of any ‘draft concepts’ of the Act – which he’s said will allow LGBTI and religious groups to “happily coexist” – once gay marriage is finally legalised?  What amendments to the Act does he envisage that allows for this “happy coexistence”?
  • Does the Commissioner advocate splitting the Marriage Act into ‘religious’ and ‘civil’ unions – effectively a second-tier marriage for same-sex couples — as a means to appease the Churches?
  • Were LGBTI groups specifically invited to lodge submissions to the 5th November Roundtable?
  • Anti-discrimination exemptions:  Does the Commissioner personally favour exemptions to allow people of faith, who own businesses in the ‘wedding industry’, to withhold services to gay couples?
  • The Commissioner has frequently stated the AHRC will create laws to “protect religious freedom”. Where does he believe such freedoms are not protected and what laws are necessary, in his view?
  • Do proposals for any new laws, to “protect religious freedom”, include any concepts which may be broadly defined as “Religious Vilification” legislation?  If so, what form might they take?

4.0   Recommendations:

1   That the entire Roundtable program be rebranded as the “Freedom of Belief” Roundtable – and the sub-head specifically states that “Belief” includes all theist, non-theist and atheist beliefs.

2   That the AHRC openly rejects claims by religious organisations that religion suffers a lack of “freedom”.

3   That the AHRC clearly states in its final report that religious freedoms and privileges already exist.

4   Marriage Act:  That amendments to the Marriage Act are such that they provide same-sex couples with ‘equal status’, in law, with heterosexual couples who marry in a church.  No 2nd-tier status for gays.

5   That no exemptions to anti-discrimination laws are granted to commercial businesses in the wedding industry that seek to limit or deny services to same-sex couples — prior to, or after, their marriage.

6.   That no exemptions are given to child adoption agencies to reject gay couples, based on being gay.

7.  That existing exemptions for priests, not to offer services to same-sex couples, be reviewed — with clear notifications to Churches and the public that such exemptions are considered clear acts of ‘intolerance’ and are regarded as inappropriate in an ‘enlightened’ 21st century.

8   That legislation be introduced to cover all citizens who receive public services from government-funded religious organisations — to protect them from religious proselytising or coercion.  This explicitly applies to all services in education, health, aged care, welfare, employment, charities, and all related fields.

9   That the national chaplaincy program in public schools is closed down — the funding of which has twice been found unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia.

10   Remove the practice of religious organisations hiring only staff of a particular faith, where those staff are not providing a wholly religious function, in the delivery of services to the public.

11   Replace one-denominational religious studies in schools with ‘comparative religion’ and ethics classes.

12  That a clause be add to the Constitution making it clear that s.116 is based wholly on secular values.  This is necessary to provide the High Court with a mandate to decide cases based on a clear separation of religion and government.  We cite the DOGS case and the two challenges to the NSCP scheme.

13  That tax exempt status for religious businesses based on “the advancement of religion” be withdrawn — where there is no clear evidence of broad and direct public benefit.

14  That religious schools receiving government funding be directed to teach ‘comparative religion’ — which covers all major religions (and none) — instead of a single denomination.  Any school decision to reject the proposal should result in reduced government funding (based on reduction formula).

15  That religious schools receiving government funding be directed to teach the accepted science of ‘human evolution’ — a national curriculum subject avoided by many.  Any school decision to reject the proposal will result in reduced government funding (based on reduction formula).

16  That ‘philosophical ethics’ be taught in all schools — based on the models from the Sydney Ethics Centre.  Benefits to NSW schoolchildren are already evident, with clear improvements in Critical Thinking.

17  That religious businesses which are commercial in nature be taxed by government at similar rates to other commercial ventures.  Foregone taxation revenue is estimated to exceed $20b annually and is an added burden for all other taxpayers.

18  That government recognises social cohesion will be improved when religions of every denomination learn to integrate with society at all levels rather than pursuing their historical agenda of self-interest which is intolerant and divisive, rather than inclusive.

19  That government takes note of the January 2016 survey by independent pollster IPSOS, showing that 78% of Australians want religion separated from the business of government.  Parliament passing laws to give same-sex couples a second-class marriage, and discriminatory exemptions for wedding retailers, is precisely the type in religious privilege that the general public disagrees with.

20  That no laws be enacted on the pretext of enshrining ‘religious freedom’ where they indirectly or directly limit the freedom of citizens to question or challenge the historical or philosophical basis of any belief – whether religious, spiritual, or concepts not grounded in fact or evidence.


This is not a zero-sum game, as the Commissioner claims.  Denying the Churches new legal exemptions would be a positive outcome for human rights.  Religions will still retain all the benefits they currently derive from the law – and the LGBTI community will be spared legalised discrimination, based on nothing more than their sexual orientation being different to most (but not all) of the religiously devout.

We should not follow the US trend, where the Religious Right campaign for legal exemptions to pursue “religious liberty” and openly discriminate against minorities.  It is explained in minute detail by religious analyst and Senior Fellow of Political Research, Frederick Clarkson.  We cite his 12.1.16 Research Paper; “When Exemption is the Rule: the Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right.”  He states;

“I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should grant me the right to refuse to serve or hire someone because they are homosexual. Removing someone’s civil rights by empowering the government to protect and preserve my religious homophobia is not my idea of religious liberty.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission is seen as an august body that upholds a raft of human rights that most atheists and secularists fully endorse.  So it is surprising that various groups within the ‘non-religious’ community have been drawn to the AHRC’s position which offers new privileges to Church organisations.

There are legitimate queries about this Roundtable program and many questions remain unanswered.  Certainly, it’s a political process and the eventual outcome – once same-sex marriage is finally legalised – will be based entirely on the political imperatives of the current federal government.


Brian Morris
Director, Plain Reason,
Author of Sacred to Secular

Plain Reason:

Plain Reason is a secular organisation fostering a greater understanding of science, reason and critical thinking within Australian society.  Our primary objective is to promote rational discussion in all matters of public interest, and particularly in areas which relate to beliefs in the supernatural and pseudo-scientific practices not based on material evidence.  We argue for the value of science and the Scientific Method as the most reliable means to advance knowledge of our world, the universe and our own human origins.

Plain Reason advances the need for Australia to become fully secular; to teach ‘philosophical ethics’ in all schools; to remove ‘single denominational religion’ from education; and to detach religious observance from the mechanisms of government.  The group has philosophical and material support in all states.