Religious freedom inquiry a ploy

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Dr Greg Walsh from the University of Notre Dame’s School of Law. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

A Notre Dame academic has described the Federal government’s move to refer religious exemptions for faith-based schools to an independent body as a way of avoiding the contentious issue prior to the election.

Senior Lecturer at the UNDA’s School of Law, Dr Greg Walsh told The Catholic Weekly referring the issue of religious freedom to the Australian Law Reform Commission is the government’s way of buying time on the issue.

“As most Coalition politicians are no longer willing to defend religious liberty, a referral to the Australian Law Reform Commission is a good political tactic that allows the Coalition to avoid discussing the issue especially before an election,” Dr Walsh said.

However Federal Attorney General Christian Porter told The Catholic Weekly the inquiry is designed to ensure that legislative exemptions “are limited or removed, while also protecting the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos.

On this issue “Bill Shorten and Penny Wong launched an unprecedented attack on religious institutions in this country,” in December, he said.

“They introduced legislation into Parliament that would have stripped the ability of Sunday schools, theological colleges, synagogues, churches, mosques, and seminaries to teach their faith.”

He said the Coalition’s approach would see “a balanced, sensible approach to freedom of religion that operates in the interests of all Australians.”

The Dean of Notre Dame’s School of Law, Dr Michael Quinn, responded more positively to the government’s reference to the ALRC.

“I am pleased by the referral and that the Government has provided the ALRC with a year to conduct their inquiries and produce their report,” Dr Quinn told The Catholic Weekly.

“If the Coalition win the Federal election then in a year’s time the ALRC should be able to report on the issues after careful deliberation …

“If the Coalition lose the Federal election it is to be hoped that whoever comprises that new Federal government will allow the inquiry to proceed rather than seek to rush into legislate on a piecemeal and inadequately researched and considered approach.”

Following delivery of the Ruddock review’s report on religious freedom in May 2018, the Government released its response in December, accepting most of the review recommendations.

However, five recommendations were set aside for further consultation and legal scrutiny.
These included those pertaining to the ability of religious schools to operate in alignment with their beliefs in respect to “the sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status” of staff and students.

On 11 April the Government announced it had asked the ALRC to conduct an inquiry “into the framework of religious exemptions in Commonwealth, State and Territory anti-discrimination legislation.”

Dr Walsh said he does not believe it is likely that the ALRC will decide in favour of strengthening the freedom of religious schools.

“There is a growing trend among our politicians, judges and the wider community to devalue the importance of religious liberty so it would not be surprising if the ALRC’s report recommends even weaker protections for religious liberty than the limited protections recommended in the [Ruddock] Review,” he said.

“In particular, there is likely to be a recommendation that the current protections under anti-discrimination legislation for religious schools, religious tertiary institutions and other religious organisations should be reduced, if not removed entirely.

“These recommendations will likely be implemented by the Commonwealth Parliament regardless of whether we have a Labor/Greens or a Coalition government.”