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Finding a balance for freedom of religion

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Those of different beliefs need to be active in reshaping the conversation about religious freedom if it is to be preserved in law.

Yesterday, the Australian Human Rights Commission hosted the first of many religious freedom round tables.

These round tables have resulted from a year-long consultation identifying that there are tensions surrounding the way religion is treated in culture and law.

The role and authority of religion has constantly changed.

Religion was once one of the most powerful sources of authority outside government. Today that isn't the case.

There have been many drivers for this change.

One driver is Australia’s changing religious mix. In 1911 about 95 per cent of Australians identified as Christian. Today it is about 60 per cent.

There has been a rising share of people identifying with other beliefs, particularly resulting from immigration.

Another contributor has been the rise of a cultural attachment to belief. The 2010 General Social Survey data found only 15 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women "actively participated in a religious or spiritual group".

There has also been a rise in other sources of authority, beliefs and values ranging from science and environmentalism through to social justice causes.

Religious freedom isn't just about those with belief.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, "the number of people reporting no religion has increased substantially over the past hundred years, from one in 250 people to one in five".

The Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into traditional rights and freedom found that "Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions".

Yet, increasingly, non-faith groups are calling for freedom from religion. And religious communities have raised concerns about the declining respect for religious freedom as part of the human rights discussion.

They were also concerned about the extent of protection for religion for individuals and institutions in current laws and also in future state and federal legislative changes.

We saw these tensions in full reality only last week in Western Australia where the principal of a school told a seven-year-old that she was not welcome at the school because her father was in a relationship with another man a relationship inconsistent with the school's doctrinal position.

It is hard to reconcile the acts of the principal with creating a culture of mutual respect.

For some, the acts are about preserving the integrity of religious community. Everyone's views are blurred because the school receives taxpayer's money.

Similar debates have emerged in Victoria surrounding adoption law reform. Traditional protections for religious institutions to act consistent with their faith are being removed on the grounds of advancing equality and non-discrimination.

Nationwide, there are debates about whether Muslim communities can exercise property rights and develop houses of worship; and there are many others.

Like all rights and freedoms, religious freedom sits within a much broader political context of evolving attitudes towards fairness, justice and responsibility.

To many, preserving religious freedom is closely associated with their culture and ethnic background and goes to the heart of individual identity and people's sense of safety and security in a free society.

But the same is also true of those without a belief, and those who feel religious freedom often gives licence for those with belief to make decisions that have an impact on their lives.

As a consequence, it is easy for discussions to quickly resort to uncompromising positions and zero-sum solutions.

That isn't constructive.

True pluralism requires respecting the importance of religion in a multi-faith society. The challenge is how.

First, we need to reassert the importance of religious freedom as part of the nation's human rights discussion.

Second, those with belief need to recognise that if they want others to respect their religious freedom, then they need to respect the rights and freedoms of others.

Third, there needs to be a trust-based and constructive avenue for engagement to discuss these issues.

The intention of yesterday's round table was to provide an opportunity for bodies representing those with, and without, a belief to recognise the need for a constructive, if at times robust, discussion.

The hope is that the round table will prove to be the first step in reframing consideration of religious freedom as part of advancing the rights and freedoms of every Australian.

Published in The Australian