Australian Christians who are concerned about the future of religious freedom should be concerned about an upcoming review being prepared by the Australian Law Reform Commission, said Morgan Begg, research Fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs.
A month before the federal election, the Morrison government tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission to review current legislation around religious freedom. This was in response to the recommendations put to the government by finding of the Expert Panel into Religious Freedom last year.
Review ‘deeply flawed’
Over the next year, the ALRC will consider how to change Australian law to “limit or remove altogether” religious exemptions on discrimination, while also “guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos”.
It is also tasked with finding a way to “remove any legal impediments to the expression of a view of marriage as it was defined in the Marriage Act 1961”, that is, a traditional view of marriage. Australia’s largest conservative think tank, the IPA, says the review is deeply flawed and is a threat to religious freedom in the country.
“The scope of the government’s review essentially prejudges the outcome by directing the law reform body to consider how best to ‘limit or remove altogether’ exemptions for faith-based institutions to conduct their affairs consistent with their religious beliefs,” it said.
“Exemptions are already a very flawed protection for religious liberty. Reducing these exemptions further is a significant threat to religious freedoms of Australians.”
It said one of the biggest problems for the defence of religious freedom is that it is wrongfully described as a ‘right’ to discriminate. The IPA addresses this, saying:
“Many commentators and activists view the exemptions as loopholes that confer an unfair legal privilege to religious institutions. This is an unfair characterisation …
“The special right created for classes of people in anti-discrimination laws to initiate litigation against others would be more appropriately regarded as a privilege, rather than the exemptions under those laws.
“The partial retention of a freedom via exemption under illiberal laws – being freedoms that existed prior to the creation of such laws – cannot be properly regarded as an unfair privilege. Inevitably, the nature of the exemptions as drafted invite the judiciary to make theological determinations from a secular perspective … it requires the courts to make determinations on what legitimate religious beliefs are.”
Last remaining legal protection at stake
Exemption laws are the only form of legal protection for religious institutions in Australia.
Without them, Christian, Catholic and other religious institutions could find themselves forced to implement practices which go directly against their beliefs, such as teaching fluid gender theory, conducting same-sex sex education classes, or allowing students to identify as the opposite gender.
The ALRC is due to submit its recommendations to the government in April 2020.