Government Response to Religious Freedom Review

December 13, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter have released a joint statement following the Religious Freedom Review chaired by Philip Ruddock but the Law Council said  delicate balance between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination would be better dealt with in comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislation.

Attorney General Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

The stated: “Our government is acting to protect religious freedom in Australia and to protect the rights of Australians to be themselves.

Our response to the Religious Freedom Review, chaired by the Hon. Philip Ruddock, is about protecting every Australian from discrimination.

The Review concluded there is an opportunity to further protect and better promote freedom of religion under Australian law and in the community. We have accepted 15 of the 20 recommendations, and we will consult with the States and Territories on the terms of a potential reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission on the remaining five recommendations. Those recommendations deal with current exemptions to anti-discrimination provisions in Commonwealth, State and Territory law.

Australia is a place where discrimination on the basis of a person’s identity — including their religious identity — is unacceptable. It is also a place where we respect the right of religious institutions to maintain their distinctive religious ethos. Our laws should reflect these values.

Our commitment to striking an appropriate balance is clear in our proposed amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. We have sought to overturn exemptions introduced by Labor so we can make clear that discrimination against students is not acceptable, while at the same time ensuring religious educational institutions can teach and maintain rules consistent with their faith.

The Labor Party’s opposition to those amendments highlights how difficult it is to secure bipartisan support on these sensitive issues. Our offer stands, however the issue highlights why our work with States and Territories and the independent Australian Law Reform Commission will be so important.

We are committed to finding a way forward that cuts through the political debates about whether some rights are more important than others.

Our response to the Religious Freedom Review includes:

  • establishing religion as a protected attribute in a new Religious Discrimination Act, rendering discrimination on this basis unlawful;
  • establishing a new statutory position of Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission;
  • developing a Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill for introduction into Parliament as soon as practicable, implementing a range of amendments recommended by the Ruddock Review;
  • supporting the Australian Human Rights Commission to increase community awareness of the importance of freedom of religion.

We look forward to consulting on the legislative package, which we intend to introduce in 2019.

Scott Morrison

Later, Scott Morrison added: “There is no more fundamental liberty that any human being has than their fundamental right to decide what they believe and or not believe.

What you believe should always be a matter for you.

The protection of our religious freedoms is synonymous with our identity and it is particularly relevant because of our diverse Australian society.

Some of our largest and most established communities and some of our more recent arrivals to Australia have a higher proportion of members expressing identification with a religious belief.

70% of Australians identify as having a particular religious faith and those faiths are many including Christian, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Judaism.

If you support an open tolerant multicultural Australia then you will support and understand religious freedoms.

Religious faith is a way of life and an integral part of harmonious Australian culture that is critically important for our continued success.

Australians are substantially united that all beliefs and all Australians, including not having a belief, should always be respected by each and every citizen.

The Law Council today welcomed steps to enshrine religious protections at the federal level, but said the delicate balance between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination would be better dealt with in comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislation.

The Australian Government today released the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review and its response, where it indicated it had accepted 15 recommendations directly, and referred five to the Australia Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for further consideration.

Among the recommendations referred to the ALRC are questions regarding the right for private religious schools to discriminate against school children and teachers.

“A Religious Discrimination Act presents opportunities to consolidate and perhaps strengthen the protections against discrimination and vilification on the basis of religion at the federal level,” said Law Council of Australia President, Morry Bailes.

“The current protections for religious freedom in Australia at the federal level are fragmented and inconsistent. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted concerns regarding the ‘lack of direct protection against discrimination on the basis of religion at the federal level’.

“However, what is needed is a mechanism to protect our human rights in accordance with international human rights principles and a mechanism that appropriately balances competing rights such as freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.

“This can be best achieved via a National Human Rights Act, or alternatively, consolidated federal anti-discrimination legislation.

“While the right to freedom of religious belief is absolute, the manifestation of religion should not be protected at the expense of other rights and freedoms,” Mr Bailes said.

Mr Bailes said the Law Council was extremely concerned that the question of whether LGBTI+ students could be discriminated against has been referred for further review.

“Children should not be discriminated against, period,” Mr Bailes said.

“Having a cloud of uncertainty over the heads of LGBTI+ children while the ALRC conducts its investigation has the potential to further traumatise or stigmatise them. It is certainly not in the best interests of the child, which should always be the primary consideration.

“Questions around the employment of teachers are more complex and are more appropriate to be reviewed by the ALRC, but any discrimination against children cannot be countenanced.”

Mr Bailes said the Law Council will need to see the detail before reaching a final position on any draft legislation.

“We strongly urge the Government to not rush the process and undertake further consultation before introducing a bill to Parliament,” Mr Bailes said.

Jewish leadership is currently studying the report.

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