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Launch of Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century

Race Race Discrimination

Launch of Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century

Graeme Innes
Race and Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
Canberra, 21 March 2011


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I also acknowledge colleagues from government, and from non-government organisations, including from a wide range of churches and faith-based organisations.  And particularly can I acknowledge colleagues from the Australian Multicultural Foundation, Hass Dellal and Athalia Zwartz, and Professors Gary Bouma and Des Cahill, as the authors of the report we are receiving and launching today.

Back in July 2005, the Council of Australian Governments decided that there should be a National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security.  Under the plan, which Ministers endorsed in 2006, the Australian Human Rights Commission was funded to undertake a range of projects.

Funding of human rights projects through the National Action Plan reflected an understanding by Australian governments that a free and tolerant society, which respects, protects and ensures the human rights of its diverse people, will be a more resilient and cohesive society.

One of the projects which the Commission was funded to undertake has been an extensive project, of community consultation and research, on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century.  Today is the culmination of that project.

The National Action Plan focuses on fostering connections and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians.  And so the Commission's programs, funded under the Plan, do include a particular aim of increasing social inclusion for new and emerging communities, and countering discrimination and intolerance towards Australia's Muslim communities.

But of course, we knew that a project on freedom of religion and belief in Australia could not be confined only to concerns for one particular faith group.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of religion and belief was proclaimed as a fundamental right for "everyone":

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right is restated, and expanded, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is included in the definition of human rights provided by the Parliament to the Commission, in the Australian Human Rights Commission Act:

1.  Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.  This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2.  No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3.  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 public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4.  The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

In both cases, this right is required to be respected, protected and ensured without discrimination, including discrimination as to the particular religion involved.

So, since freedom of religion and belief is a right for people of all faiths, a wide range of faith groups were consulted during this project.  I would like to express my thanks, and the thanks of the Commission, to the many church representatives and faith based organisations, as well as individuals, who participated in the consultation.  The consultation process in this project was extensive, with 210 senior church representatives being consulted in 23 group consultations and 30 interviews over 12 months.

Research papers were also commissioned from authors from a range of religious traditions.  A number of these papers are also being released today through the Commission's website, and we hope to release still more of these papers in coming weeks.  I would like to take the opportunity to thank each of the authors for their contributions.

As well as hearing from faith based perspectives, the consultation also heard from people and organisations who sought to emphasise that freedom of religion and belief also includes freedom from having other people's beliefs imposed upon them.  These views, too, are reflected throughout the report.

Face to face discussions, and submissions, have provided very valuable opportunities to share a wide range of perspectives on major issues for churches and faith organisations, in particular in the relationship between the church and the state, including in areas such as operation of discrimination laws. 

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this research, is that there is a need to develop appropriate responses to the unique and varied Australian religious contexts and settings, including ancient Indigenous traditions, Christian heritages, and minority faith communities. 

Additionally, when we are considering issues of discrimination and equality, as we do at the Commission, the research shows that there is a pressing need for education about religions, if we are to reduce ignorance and fear, while promoting intergroup respect.  The report will prove a valuable tool in the development of policies and programs in the area of religion and belief, as we continue to address the changing and evolving needs of our multicultural population in Australia.

As well as discussing these 'big picture' issues, which arise across the whole spectrum of religion and belief in Australia, the consultations gave space to people whose religion might be considered by many to be outside the mainstream of religion in Australia.  Inclusivity and respect are certainly hallmarks of this work.

We see criticism, from time to time, of human rights as being too much about minority issues.  The Commission, however,  sees it as our mission to make human rights real for everyone in Australia -- hence our motto "Human Rights: Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day".  The voices of mainstream religious views came through very clearly during this project, and come through very clearly in the report.

But, as I have said, human rights are not only for the mainstream or the majority in society.  Indeed, there is a particular need to see that rights are also ensured for people whose beliefs most of the rest of society does not share.

As the many people here involved in promoting positive inter-faith dialogue and co-operation know, you don't have to share someone's religious belief to respect their right to hold and exercise that belief.  Many people involved in this project have said that the opportunities to share perspectives with people with different beliefs was as valuable as the opportunity to have their own voice heard.

Once again, let me acknowledge and thank the authors, for the way in which they have gathered the myriad inputs into this report. 

The status of the report - unlike many others we launch - is as a report to the Commission, not a report by the Commission.  And it is one which reports the conversation, rather than setting out a way forward.  So I hope I can say without offence, that I am not standing here like Moses with ten commandments, or the sacred text of any other religious tradition, on what should be done to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is respected, protected and ensured in Australia.  I don't look very much like Moses, at least since I shaved my beard off, and the Commission's commitment to producing information in alternative and accessible formats has not yet included producing stone tablets as far as I know.

I do want to celebrate this report, as the culmination of a process through which individuals, communities and organisations around Australia, have come forward, and let us hear their voices on what freedom of religion and belief means to them.  As such, it will inform the conversation into the future.  My sincere thanks to every one of you for doing so, and to those who have attended this launch today.  I am pleased to launch the report.