A massive 16,500 submissions have been received by the Expert Panel into Religious Freedom, Panel chair Phillip Ruddock told a roundtable gathering held at the University of Notre Dame Australia last week.
The consultation held at Notre Dame’s Broadway campus was one in a series of face-to-face listening sessions with a range of stakeholders on religious freedom being held by the Panel across Australia this month.
Along with Mr Ruddock, a former federal Attorney General in the Howard government, panellists Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher, Dr Annabelle Bennett and Professor Nicholas Aroney heard from an audience which included legal professionals and academics from Australia and overseas concerned at threats to religious freedom here.
Mr Ruddock told those present that while he expected the group to present “erudite opinions about what can be done to have the best possible human rights protection anywhere in the world,” he similarly expected that if he went back to Parliament with those recommendations, he would be told that it was not what they were looking for.
During the 90-minute session at Notre Dame, concerns were raised about the tendency for courts and anti-discrimination tribunals to restrict the definition of what constituted a ‘religious organisation,’ narrowing the definition in such a way that charities such as the St Vincent de Paul Society would fall outside the scope of religious organisations. Consequently, they would also fall outside of protections for religious freedom provided under Australian law. Concerns were also raised about whether religious freedom protections would be sufficient for those subjected to litigation from activists who try to use anti-discrimination laws to silence or punish individuals.
Simon McCrossan, a barrister and current Head of Public Policy at the UK’s Evangelical Alliance said, despite every Christian preacher who had been prosecuted under “hate speech” laws being acquitted due to the explicit religious liberty protections under those laws, they have nonetheless lost their jobs, businesses and future employment prospects in the process.
What he described meant that, in an environment where the process is often the punishment, having a legislated religious freedom defence to anti-discrimination laws does little to protect religious freedom.
In light of previous Panel consultations, it seemed that there exists in Australia the appetite for activists to seek to restrict religious freedom protections.
Earlier in the week, the Panel had met with representatives from the Equality Campaign and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) who, despite promising during the marriage debate that a change in marriage law would have no consequences for the rest of Australia, argued for the removal of existing religious freedom protections in Australian law.
The Panel will conclude its consultations this month, and is due to report to Parliament by 31 March.