Religious Freedom Review, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Parliament House, Canberra.

Submission: Copies to all members of the Review Panel and PMC Secretariat:

To whom it may concern,

The Australian Law Reform Commission interim report 127 has previously made the finding that there is no restriction on religious freedom, defining it as:

“Freedom of religion is infringed when a law prevents individuals from practising their religion or requires them to engage in conduct which is prohibited by their religion. Alternatively, the freedom will also be infringed when a law mandates a particular religious practice.”

(4.38, p.104).

It is therefore of concern to us that there appears to be an effort by legislation to grant special exemptions to religious groups from laws that apply to all other members of the community.

Therefore, the Atheist Foundation of Australia argues that such calls should be rejected, and existing exemptions be removed, particularly if they contravene United Nations Human Rights.

A review of the ALRC report makes it clear that there is no sound argument to increase the level of protections offered to religions in Australia, and in fact good grounds for removing some existing exemptions from anti discrimination laws.

Calls for religious believers to be allowed to express their religious beliefs by refusing to supply goods and services to certain members of the public should be rejected out of hand and revealed in their true light as discriminatory behavior. For example, a focus of these calls recently has been on bakers of cakes for same-sex weddings. There is no credible basis to support a claim that discrimination against same-sex marriage should be allowed, and no logical difference between this and allowing a religious baker to refuse to serve a Muslim, a Jewish person or a dark skinned woman, an adulterer or a disobedient child – all of whom fit into categories of persons excoriated in the bible or by religious tradition.

Discrimination in employment on religious grounds should only be allowed when the actual position requires a religious qualification, i.e for the appointment of ministers, Imams, preachers, etc. Discrimination in employment should be absolutely prohibited in institutions run by religious groups, but funded to any extent by public money. This means schools, hospitals, retirement and hospice care services, and employment services.

Let’s ignore for the moment the important fact that taxpayers are currently funding the activities of ALL religious groups because of generous tax exemption laws that apply, regardless of how bizarre and destructive religious dogma and practice can be.

A typical example of the nature of the discrimination practiced concerns a young woman employed by a religious private school. The school is set in beautiful grounds on acres of land surrounded by the most expensive houses in the country. It has new sport, computer and study facilities. It receives millions of dollars of government funding every year. Students are the children of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the community.

The young teacher is sacked when it is revealed she is pregnant and unmarried. She has been in a relationship with her partner for many years. She is a popular and effective teacher. Her Year 12 Maths class is distraught. Her teaching role has nothing to do with religion, and her private life is entirely a matter for herself to judge.

To suggest that her mere presence on the grounds of the school will undermine the morals of her students gives far too much credit to Australian teenagers and is a naive attitude in general. It also carries faint echoes of biblical passages that declare women unclean during parts of the menstrual cycle or for periods after birth. Worst of all, it attempts to shield students from the real world where half of marriages end in divorce; people have the right to engage in relationships that are not formalised with marriage; where men do love other men and women do love other women, and where 30% of the population are agnostic or atheist, with about 90% of the remainder never engaging in any actual religious practice despite declaring their faith.

The right to discriminate in this way is represented as a fine exercise of religious morality. How preposterous this is coming from organisations that have systematically facilitated and covered up child sexual abuse for decades, and claim to practice a faith based on the teachings of Jesus Christ who apparently welcomed sinners and did not judge them.

The rule of law is the only civil way to control the excesses of religious practice. Civil society has done this many times in the past. Religious freedom itself depends on an act of legislation. The recent changes to marriage law in Australia is but one example that has met with opposition from religious groups offended that such laws were contrary to god’s teaching – and history has demonstrated to us that the abolition of slavery, emancipation of women and the granting of equal property rights have had religious critics too.

We are also very concerned about the current lack of transparency of this inquiry into religious freedoms, especially the need to understand the processes that take place regarding findings, when there is a significant amount of religious sentiment being promoted via mainstream media.

Progress must be maintained, history acknowledged and the rights of everyone (regardless of their religious or non-religious status) should be maintained. Rolling back anti-discrimination laws would be a potentially damaging step to take.

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