Australia has traditionally been wary of mixing religion and politics. Unlike the UK and many European countries, Australia has no established church; unlike the US, there has been little pressure on political candidates to profess their religious credentials. The number of Australians explicitly rejecting religious affiliation has grown from just 4% in 1901 to 27% in 2011, and that figure is expected to rise significantly in the results of the 2016 census. [See here for details on the changes to the census Religion Question].
Historically Australia has been burnt by sectarian strife, particularly animosity between Protestants and Catholics. So bitter was this enmity that it led to the breakup of the Labor Party in the 1950s, and to Federal funding of a separate Catholic education system to keep the peace.
Of more recent times, evangelical Protestants have been fighting back. Taking a cue from other countries, they have been taking advantage of government-mandated “Special Religious Instruction” in government schools. Parents have been faced with an invidious choice: expose their children to explicit proselytising, or risk their social isolation by withdrawing them.
The influence of religion in politics is increasing. Even a supposedly atheist Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, gave in to religious lobbying and directed hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for religious chaplains in schools. In Tony Abbott, we had a Prime Minister heavily influenced by the most divisive Catholic activist in Australian history, BA Santamaria. And the conservative right within Malcolm Turnbull's Coalition government is unashamedly flexing its political muscles.
It’s time to return Australia to its secular roots. As former High Court judge and RSA Honorary Member Michael Kirby has said, “The principle of secularism is one of the greatest developments in human rights in the world. We must safeguard and protect it, for it can come under threat in contemporary Australia.”
Australians deserve a liberal, pluralistic and secular Australia.
Government policies should be based on evidence, reason and compassion, not religious beliefs. Everyone should be free to follow their own religious or non-religious worldview, provided that doing so does not harm or unnecessarily restrict others.
We therefore call for the following:
1. A secular, pluralistic and democratic Australia
- Government policies should be based on evidence, reason and compassion, and protect the human rights of all Australians.
- Everyone should be free to choose and hold their own religious or non-religious worldviews, provided they do not impose such views on others, and provided practices associated with such worldviews do no harm.
2. Clear separation between religion and the State
- All Australian constitutions should be reformed to ensure clear separation between religion and the State, and all references to God removed.
- Parliamentary prayers and religious references in statutory oaths should be removed.
- No laws made by parliaments nor decisions of executive government should privilege or promote religion.
3. ‘One law for all’, with no recognition of parallel legal systems
- Religious institutions should not be permitted to exempt themselves from the law of the land. Canon law must not take precedence over Australian law.
- Sharia courts should not be officially recognised.
- There should be mandatory reporting by religious functionaries of actual or suspected child abuse.
4. Religious organisations subject to the same laws as other organisations
- The ‘advancement of religion’ should be removed from the statutory definition of charity, and religious organisations should not enjoy automatic tax exempt status.
- Religious organisations should be subject to anti-discrimination laws in employment and service provision.
- Government funding to religious organisations such as schools and hospitals should be subject to rigorous accountability to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws and the absence of proselytising.
5. Children not to suffer because of the religious views of their parents
- Decisions about children’s healthcare should be based on evidence-based medicine, not the religious worldviews of their parents.
- No organisation, whether religious or not, should be allowed to restrict children’s education or to isolate them within closed communities.
6. Education to be strictly secular, not promoting any particular religion
- National and state curricula should include the study of a range of religious and non-religious worldviews, taught by professionally trained teachers.
- Government resources should not be used to support particular religious views, programs of religious instruction, or the employment of religious functionaries in educational settings.
7. No discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex, sexuality or gender identity
- Australian governments should not impose a religious bias on the definition of marriage, or on the right to adopt.
8. Freedom of reproductive choice, with no religious interference
- Termination of pregnancy should be decriminalised in all States and Territories.
- Governments should make access to evidence-based sexual and reproductive health information and healthcare services universally available.
- Age-appropriate sex and relationships education should be included in national and state curricula.
9. Healthcare available to all regardless of the religious views of the provider
- Public hospitals must not be allowed to restrict treatment on the basis of religious worldviews.
- Private hospitals must not refuse emergency treatment on the basis of religious worldviews.
10. Guaranteed control over one's own body, free from religious interference, when facing the end of life
- ‘Advance directives’ should be given legal force.
- Physician-assisted suicide, with appropriate safeguards, should be decriminalised.
- Governments should fund non-religious palliative care services.
 The Hon, Michael Kirby AC CMG, In Praise of Secular Education, December 2009.