It seems that every few weeks, another inquiry related to religious freedom is announced. Maybe I am exaggerating, but there has been at least one federal inquiry a year over the past eight years, and sometimes more than that.
Each time a new inquiry pops up, people of faith participate in sizeable numbers, even though these inquiries usually occur over Christmas and the new year break.
We make our submissions and participate in surveys and appear before inquiries in the hope that some legislative action will be taken to protect people of faith against discrimination and allow us to exercise our internationally-recognised right to freedom of belief.
Each inquiry finds the same thing: that religious freedom is not adequately protected in this country and recommends that changes to the law occur in order to rectify this.
The situation is most egregious here in NSW, where it remains legal to deny a person service because they are wearing a hijab, a clerical collar or a cross around their neck.
So lacking are the protections that if you were in a restaurant here in Sydney and decided to make the sign of the cross and silently pray grace before meals, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the restaurant owner from asking you to leave and banning you from ever returning.
Despite this evidence of grossly unequal treatment, the most recent additions to the litany of religious freedom or anti-discriminations inquiries in this country all aim to further restrict, rather than protect, the rights of people of faith.
First, there’s the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into religious schools. As reported elsewhere in this paper, its deadline has been extended until the end of the year and its report likely won’t be made public before March 2024.
The consultation paper for this inquiry that was released in January offered proposals that would strip religious schools of the legal right to embed a religious ethos in their school through employment, enrolment or curriculum, having a devastating effect on the rights of parents who make great sacrifices to send their kids to religious schools.
Next, there was the announcement from federal attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, of a parliamentary inquiry into the establishment of a charter of rights for Australia, that is, whether there should be a national Human Rights Act for Australia. This inquiry was announced last month and is due to report back in March 2024.
While a charter of rights might sound benign, the position paper on the topic recently released by the Australian Human Rights Commission reveals its proposed framework will fall well short of the standard of protection offered to freedom of conscience and belief in international treaties while elevating other aspects of a person’s identity (no surprises there.)
Rather than offering a detailed analysis of the proposed framework, I will just say that the campaign for a “charter of rights” commenced almost immediately after the legalisation of same-sex marriage by the same people who successfully lobbied for a change to the marriage law.
Those who led the “yes” campaign have devoted much time and money in recent years in paving the way for a charter of rights.
If that’s not enough to make you suspicious that this type of law might be adverse for people of faith, I will also say that Victoria has its own charter of rights, and it is hard to imagine anywhere else in Australia or in the western world, for that matter, where religious freedoms are so heavily threatened.
Then, there is the lack of any legislative activity on a federal religious discrimination bill, even though this was an election promise.
The government still tells us—publicly and privately—that it intends to make good on this promise, though. In announcing the charter of rights inquiry, the attorney-general said that the government would continue with its other rights-based election commitments, which includes legislating the outcomes of the ALRC inquiry and the prevention of discrimination against people of faith, including anti-vilification protections.
However, with the delay of the publication of the ALRC inquiry report until March 2024, which “coincidentally” is the same time as the charter of rights report is due to be finalised, I do not expect any action to occur on religious discrimination.
After all, why would a government begin work on a bill that proved divisive and even fatal for the previous government when they know that they can just point to two ongoing inquiries that have a bearing on religious discrimination as a reason to delay? A more cynical person than I might even wonder if it had been designed this way.
If I were a betting person, I would put my money on yet another year of no parliamentary action on religious discrimination.
Instead, we will just have another cycle of inquiries and reports and campaigns to add to the list. I guess we can be grateful that at least they are not occurring over Christmas this time.