Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a right enjoyed by all, not just those of faith. It protects those who live a life of faith and those who live by other beliefs or, indeed, no beliefs. It protects those who face coercion that impairs their freedom to choose their religion or beliefs. It protects those whose views on faith or belief change over their lifetime. It is not a protection for religions. It is a protection, a human right, for the religious, the non-religious and those who subscribe to other systems of belief.
On 22 November 2017, the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, announced the appointment of an Expert Panel (the Panel) to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.
The appointment of the Panel occurred in the context of Parliamentary debate of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 (the Marriage Amendment Act). Among other things, that Act amended the definition of marriage in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (the Marriage Act) to provide that marriage means ‘the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others’. Previously marriage had been defined as the ‘union of a man and a woman’. Ensuring adequate protections for religious bodies that maintain that marriage can only be between a man and a woman was a key feature of Parliamentary discussion of the legislation.
While the passage of the Marriage Amendment Act provided the immediate context for the appointment and work of the Panel, religious freedom has been the subject of a number of significant reviews and inquiries both in Australia and overseas in recent years.
It was not surprising to the Panel that freedom of religion should be the subject of such interest in Australia. As it went about its work, the Panel heard repeatedly that religious adherence in Australia is at a critical juncture. Changing patterns of religious adherence, a loss of trust in mainstream institutions, and changing social mores are challenging the traditional role that religion has played in Australian society.
In the view of the Panel, human rights have the most work to do during times of change and uncertainty. While the Panel did not accept the argument, put by some, that religious freedom is in imminent peril, it did accept that the protection of difference with respect to belief or faith in a democratic, pluralist country such as Australia requires constant vigilance. Accordingly, it acknowledged the timeliness of the obligations under its Terms of Reference to look again at the protection of religious freedom and its relationship with other rights, which are of equal weight and significance.
*Please note - the Australian government response to this report is also available for download