Opening remarks to the Ruddock Inquiry

Christopher Noonan / 22 December 2019

The Rationalist Society of Australia is an independent not-for-profit association, founded in 1906. Relevant to this Inquiry are some of our 10 Point Plan for a Secular Australia:

1. We stand for a liberal, pluralistic and secular Australia:

Everyone should be free to follow their own religious or non-religious worldview, provided they don’t impose such views on others, and provided practices associated with such worldviews do no harm

2. We think there should be a clear separation between organised religion and the State:

Parliaments should make no laws, nor executive government make decisions, that privilege or promote religious worldviews over any other worldview

3. We are committed to the rule of law as fundamental to a democratic Australia, and think there should be ‘one law for all’, with no recognition of parallel legal systems:

Canon law should not take precedence over Australian law; so-called ‘sharia courts’ should not be officially recognised in Australia.

4. Religious organisations subject to the same laws as other organisations:

a. They should be subject to the same anti-discrimination laws in employment and service provision.
b. There should be greater transparency in religious schools and hospitals that receive government funding to provide services to the general public, to ensure they abide by Australians’ preference for non-discrimination and do not take the opportunity to proselytise
c. Religious organisations should not enjoy automatic tax-exempt status simply for the ‘advancement of religion’.

Consistent with these policy stances, our submission agrees with many other groups in supporting laws that would reflect Australians deep sense of egalitarianism and non-discrimination, expressed strongly in the recent equal marriage postal vote.

We oppose and reject laws that privilege one set of beliefs and values over others, and we remind the Panel that, according to the UN Human Rights Committee, Article 18 of the ICCPR – the so-called “freedom of religion” clause – refers not only to religious belief but to non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief at all.

We therefore reject calls for a separate Religious Freedom Act, and support calls instead for a broader federal instrument that would protect and balance all human rights.

Why?

We believe in secular government – meaning government that is neutral with respect to its treatment of belief systems, be they religious or non-religious.

We are generally in favour of the greatest possible freedom for individuals, consistent with the prevention of harm to others. We think governments should use the coercive power of the State as sparingly as possible. Leaders in our society are free to cajole and coax, remonstrate and seek to persuade others to their point of view, and we believe public education and persuasion are to be preferred as vehicles for change, rather than the expansive use of legislation.

In this Inquiry and similar previous ones, we think those who’ve been calling for strengthening or even expanding the rights and privileges, or the defences available, to organised religion have failed to demonstrate that there’s any need to do so.

For example, in the 2014 Freedoms Inquiry, the Australian Law Reform Commission found “There is no obvious evidence that Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws significantly encroach on freedom of religion in Australia”. Even the Freedom 4 Faith Coalition admitted in its submission to this Inquiry that freedom of religion is “not under serious and imminent threat in Australia” and that religious freedom has not diminished as a result of the legalisation of same sex marriage.

Their argument is based on the view that there are “deep concerns” about possible encroachments on religious freedom in Australia. But surely a government should not contemplate using the coercive power of the State just because one particular group, who cannot even claim to be representative of the breadth of their own religious community, has “concerns”.

The fact is the Australian community is becoming less and less religious, and some religious leaders are fighting a rear-guard battle for hearts and minds, and for power and privilege. But the diminishing role of religion is the natural consequence of new generations understanding the origins of organised religion as human constructs, not as revealed truths. We acknowledge that religious organisations have often done enormous good, but that’s because religious institutions have themselves been shaped by the legacy of the Enlightenment and have shaken off many of their more traditional teachings.

But where they insist on maintaining some of the more sanctimonious traditional teachings of the Bible, they often do much harm. In our submission, we argue the current exemptions from anti-discrimination law enjoyed by religious organisations entrenches traditional prejudice and harm against women and the LGBTI community. And that by continuing these exemptions, governments are, in essence, complicit in maintaining this prejudice and harm.

You will no doubt have received many submissions from traditional religionists, and we know that organised religion is very adept at mobilising their followers to write to inquiries like this. [This is one of the reasons why legalisation of voluntary assisted dying has taken over 30 years]. However, an analysis of submissions made to the Inquiry into Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century, led by Gary Bouma and Des Cahill, found that a majority of submissions to that inquiry were significantly out of step with the general public’s views on religion. They found rather that “Christian groups, with the benefit of effective establishmentarianism, flooded the process with vested cases for religious privilege, such that the status quo on religious entitlement prevailed.”

Nearly a third of Australians positively identified as having No Religion in the last census. We urge the Panel to recognise the changing worldviews of Australians and to make recommendations that reflect a genuinely liberal, pluralistic and secular Australia.

Our recommendations

1) Any examination of the right to freedom of religion or belief must examine the right of non-religious people and members of minority religious groups to be free from the impositions of any other religion.

2) A federal statutory human rights instrument that protects and balances fundamental human rights should be enacted.

3) Religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws should be limited to the following:

a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
b) the training or education of people seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
c) the selection or appointment of people to perform functions in relation to, or otherwise participate in, any religious observance or practice; and
d) the selection or appointment of people, by a body established to propagate religion (or religious views), to positions substantially involving religious observance, practice, teaching, leadership, counselling or lobbying.

4) Demands for broader religious exemptions or privileges, in particular with regards to their expansion to include religious individuals, or commercial enterprises operated by religious individuals, should be categorically rejected.

5) Repeal the provisions of the Charities Act 2013 and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012 that treat the “advancement of religion” as inherently charitable, and abolish any related rule of the common law.

All the more reason.

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