In 2015 the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) looked at whether there were any Commonwealth laws that infringed upon freedom of religion. The ALRC report found that there are no Commonwealth laws that ‘significantly encroach on freedom of religion in Australia’.1 The Australian Law Reform Commission is a federal agency, filled with legal experts whose job it is to make determinations of this kind, after investigation at the behest of the government. If they found there are no laws that infringe on freedom of religion, then SA Humanists agrees fully with their findings.
When reviewing international treaties which have – to a large extent – codified the human rights that are accepted by a majority of nations, we find that there is no established hierarchy of rights. That is that no one individual right automatically holds precedence over any other. It is from this position that SA Humanists argues that it is not appropriate for the Australian Parliament to decide that one individual right is more deserving of explicit protection in law than another.
The issue of competing rights is most prominent in two issues, the first being the right of an individual to dignity and to be free from discrimination. This issue is of importance now in Australian society after the legalisation of marriage equality. However, the short period of time that marriage equality has been legal, and the history of case law prior to its legality demonstrate that there is no interest in forcing religions to officiate and provide their amenities to couples they believe cannot be married in their faith. This is demonstrated by the complete lack of individuals who have been divorced seeking to force a Catholic priest to perform a wedding ceremony for them.
The second issue of competing rights concerns minors and their right to bodily integrity and to grow up to be a healthy and intact adult. The bodily integrity of female minors is currently protected by law through the banning of female genital mutilation no matter what the faith or cultural beliefs of the parent or legal guardians. This same protection is not provided to male minors who are still subjected to ritualised genital mutilation, more commonly known by its sanitised term of ‘male circumcision’. Whilst there can be medical reasons to carry out the procedure on a minor at a doctor’s recommendation, in general, procedures that cause damage or change to a minor’s genitals should be banned unless medically necessary. Such a ban allows the individual to decide for themselves once they attain the ability to decide for themselves.
SA Humanists also find that there are many aspects of society that give undue privilege to religion to the detriment of others. In the provision of health services to women and LGBTIQ+ people, religious health providers are currently able to withhold medically necessary treatments from patients in their care which, in at least one case cited, led to complications that would not have arisen in a secular health provider.
These privileges for religious organisations also extend to their employment practices, no matter the job role.
Consequently, due to them being one of the largest employers of people in the caring professions (teachers, health practitioners, social workers, etc.), they are allowed to fire individuals based on factors an ordinary secular organisation in the same field would not. This has the effect of causing harm and a loss of dignity for individuals that find themselves in these situations.
Another aspect of religious Freedom that is of particular importance to SA Humanists is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ belief systems and culture be afforded the same status and treatment as any other organised religion or religious belief. Just because there are neither codified books, nor an organisation does not mean that the beliefs of indigenous Australians are any less important and in need of protection under the concept of religious freedom. For example, whilst the Australian parliament would have no interest in forcing the Catholic Church to include women in its priest hood, the exact same situation should apply to the tradition of men’s and women’s business. It is entirely up to those who hold the beliefs to decide how those beliefs should be manifested.
SA Humanists recognise that in a multicultural society such as Australia it is important that there are adequate provisions to ensure that people can practise their religion or belief; whether that be theistic, non-theistic or atheistic, but most vitally that any practice of religion or belief does not infringe upon the fundamental human rights of others. We believe that Australia will be a better place for all people by implementing an Australian Bill of Rights, so all rights can be fully protected.