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Freedom of Religion

Rights and Freedoms
sun over a pathway between trees

The Australian Human Rights Commission has produced a factsheet on the current protections in Australian law for freedom of religion.  The factsheet can be found here.

In Australian schools, workplaces and in all aspects of life, there are people with a wide variety of different religious and other beliefs. Central to Australia’s success as a multicultural country is our commitment to respecting difference.

One place where Australians from many different backgrounds and beliefs come together is at work.  Many of us spend a large portion of our lives at work. That’s why so many of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s efforts—in areas such as preventing or responding to sexual harassment, racism or discrimination on the basis of a person’s disability—focus on activity that takes place in the workplace.  If human rights are not respected at work, then Australians are not adequately protected.

So what can employers do to create inclusive workplaces?  Inclusion begins with respect.  For many people of faith, religious identity is deeply important.  Open, respectful communication between employers and employees is especially important when a problem arises.  Disagreement is best resolved before it escalates into a legal dispute.

Diversity Council Australia (DCA) is currently creating a guide for their members entitled Creating Inclusive Multifaith Workplaces, to be released later this year.  DCA has kindly shared some tips for building inclusive workplaces which respect and respond to diversity in faith affiliation and experience:

1.    Start with understanding the law: Inclusion is about more than just meeting your legal obligations, but it helps to understand Australia’s laws covering protection from religious discrimination at work.

2.    Know your workforce: Understand the faith diversity of your workforce and the subsequent need for faith-based inclusion within your organisation.

3.    Build inclusion into ALL of your policies:

•    Update your Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) policy to include faith, and no faith, as part of a person’s identity.

•    Consider how to make your dress codes inclusive, so that they provide flexibility to accommodate employees’ religious or cultural obligations, while meeting health and safety requirements.

•    Check if your leave polices allow for employees to meet cultural and religious obligations.

•    Include staff from a variety of backgrounds when planning events to ensure these are inclusive.

•    Where feasible, multi-faith quiet rooms are an excellent way to be inclusive of employee needs for prayer, meditation, or quiet reflection for employees of all faith and of no faith.

•    Educate to avoid stereotypes and bias: Faith-based stereotyping is extremely common and in the workplace this can lead to inaccurate ideas that people from particular faiths are not capable of taking on certain roles.

(Adapted from Creating Inclusive Multifaith Workplaces, Diversity Council of Australia, 2019)

As the Commission’s factsheet makes clear, Australian law provides some protection for freedom of religion. However, there remain some gaps in the law. For over 20 years now, the Commission has advocated for more comprehensive legal protection in Australia for freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

I hope this fact sheet is useful in promoting a diverse, multicultural and multifaith Australia.

Edward Santow

Human Rights Commissioner