The Australian Human Rights Commission has today made six recommendations to the Religious Freedom Review, which was commissioned last year to evaluate the strength of existing religious protections in Australia.
The Commission recommends, in its written submission, that the Government undertake research and community consultation, with a view to developing new legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.
It also recommends the Government examine alternatives to the current system of religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws to ensure that the rights of all Australians can be realised. Any proposed changes should comply with Australia’s obligations under international law.
“Recognising that human rights sometimes come into tension does not undermine the universality or inalienable nature of the rights in question; nor is resolution of these conflicts a matter of arbitrary choice.” the submission states.
“International human rights law has developed principles to help states manage conflicts between rights, and Australia is obliged under international laws to apply these principles when considering any reform in this area.”
Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow, who led the submission, said: “The Government must ensure any future legislation does not detract from existing human rights protections, particularly in the case of LGBTI Australians”.
“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion occupies a special place in our democracy not just because international human rights law demands it but also because this freedom is vital to the healthy functioning of our nation,” he said.
“The challenge is to protect this right simultaneously with other rights.”
In November 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee urged Australia to “adopt comprehensive federal legislation giving full effect” to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Any reform in respect of religious freedom presents an opportunity to consider such broader human rights reform.
Other recommendations in the Commission’s submission include tasking an independent body to collect and analyse quantitative information on the nature and prevalence of harm experienced by people in Australia because of their religion – especially physical and verbal attacks, abuse and intimidation, and discrimination.
The Commission also recommends that the Australian Government enable a multi-faith advisory group, consisting of leaders and representatives of Australia’s diverse religious communities, to advise Government.
The Religious Freedom Review panel was commissioned by the Australian Government in November 2017. The expert panel is chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock and includes: the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, the Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC, Father Frank Brennan SJ AO and Professor Nicholas Aroney.
The panel is expected to report its findings by 31 March 2018.