Submission: Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief (2018)
PFLAG Capital Region Inc (PFLAG-CR) supports the principle of religious freedom and considers that the laws of Australia should protect that principle wherever it does not infringe on the rights and
freedoms (including religious freedom) of others. PFLAG-CR has many members who adhere to a
religious faith or other belief system and they are welcomed and embraced with no discrimination.
Religious or spiritual belief is a deeply personal matter and in our view should never be imposed on, or via, the political or legal sphere. Because PFLAG is an organisation primarily formed to support
people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) and their families,
this submission will, in part, specifically address issues of religious freedom that have impacted, and continue to impact, members of the LGBTIQ community.
Australia signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1972 and it was
ratified and came into force here in 1980. As it is a party to this multilateral covenant, Australia’s
laws regarding religious freedom should be consistent with its articles; particularly Article 18 on
freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Two core aspects to the application of Article 18 are that:
- freedom of religion inherently includes freedom from religion, and that
- freedom to manifest belief or religion may (only) be limited where necessary “to protect
public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”
As a signatory to the ICCPR, Australia is under obligation to enact laws that find that crucial balance between protecting and rightly limiting the manifestation of religious beliefs, and the dividing line
will most often be the point where the private practice of religion impinges on the rights or
freedoms of others. Put differently, all Australians should have the right to freedom of religion, but
no one religion, and no one person’s religious practice, should be privileged above the same
freedom being exercised by other people. These rights extend to those whose beliefs are theistic,
non-theistic and atheistic in nature.
The reason why religion is supported broadly in Australia is because it has been considered to
contain a core of belief that each person should practice kindness, charity and tolerance to others.
Wherever and from whatever source these values are taught, they are valuable to the building of a
respectful and supportive society. But it would be foolish to pretend that religious belief has not
been, or cannot also be, the source of negative values and actions, such as intolerance and
discrimination. That this can be the case is exactly why Article 18 allows for appropriate legal limits
on the manifestation of belief.
Recent examples of this were found during the voting period for the national survey on the question of whether same-sex marriage should be legalised, and following the successful amendment of the
Marriage Act to be inclusive of same-sex couples.
There were churches and individuals of faith represented in both the “yes” and “no” campaigns for
voting on the survey question. But many arguing vehemently against same-sex marriage did so on religious grounds, suggesting that the law of Australia should continue to prevent same-sex couples
from legally marrying within Australia because they believed it would violate their religion-based
definition of marriage and the sanctity (a religious concept) of marriage. We watched in horror as
they campaigned against the equal rights of the LGBTIQ community, damaging further the
self-esteem and mental health of LGBTIQ people, and particularly young and vulnerable LGBTIQ
people who may already be dealing with negative or hurtful attitudes or actions towards them.
These groups and individuals would have us believe that they do not discriminate against LGBTIQ
people, yet they opposed support for LGBTIQ relationships by campaigning against marriage
equality. When they did this, they crossed that line between having and living their own beliefs, and
seeking to impose those beliefs on others. When some claimed that same-sex couples raising
children was akin to child abuse, that line was crossed again, vilifying LGBTIQ parents and, in the
follow-up claims of some, attempting to incite hostility and discrimination against LGBTIQ
The “debate” became very ugly indeed, and with each new low, LGBTIQ parents,
children and youth were subjected to a barrage of negative and unfounded opinions about their
place and rights in their own society, and from those who arguably should never have had the right
to vote on their civil or human rights in the first place. Time and again, those negative statements
came from conservative religious individuals, organisations and churches and were proclaimed to be
expressions of religious freedom. In fact, those who spoke against these inaccurate and vilifying
claims were often accused of infringing on religious freedom. This strategy was employed in order
that they might attempt to make their ugly statements with impunity and much harm was done as a
After the amendment of the Marriage Act, the focus of these voices shifted to an argument for the
privileging of religious views to the point where they could be used as the justification for
discriminatory behaviours prohibited by Australian law. Once again, the strategy of calling
belief-based discrimination “religious freedom” was used to try to silence critics and victims of
discrimination alike. This very investigation into whether or not the laws of Australia adequately
protect religious freedom is a sad indication that these tactics have at least somewhat succeeded,
and it can only be hoped that the outcomes of the investigation will not do the same.
PFLAG-CR hopes that the Committee will not accept at face value any submission that claims that
anti-discrimination laws are in any way an inappropriate limit on religious freedom, but will instead
consider carefully how important anti-discrimination laws are to our diverse Australian society. The
private practice of religion must not be allowed to undermine the key Australian values of fairness,
tolerance and respect for all Australians.
Australians cannot be denied the right to think as they choose, even when those thoughts are
discriminatory in nature. As voluntary organisations, churches cannot be forced to be
non-discriminatory in their membership or practice. This includes beliefs that hold homosexuality,
bisexuality or transgenderism to be morally wrong. Such thinking is, from PFLAG’s perspective, both
unjustifiable and deeply disappointing, and we question whether organisations that discriminate in
their membership should be afforded the benefit of a tax-free status. However, the existence of
churches that teach such ideas is an unavoidable outcome of allowing religious freedom. It is the
place of those with different beliefs to use their own freedoms to express their opposition to such
ideas and work for positive change.
However, once we move into the realm of businesses that serve the public, anti-discrimination laws
apply and PFLAG-CR strongly urges the government not to allow those laws to be eroded in order to
privilege religious beliefs over the rights of Australians. PFLAG does not support the notion that
“deeply held beliefs” are an acceptable reason for exemption from non-discrimination laws. It is up
to each individual to make decisions about their employment and business activities in line with their values.
Where an individual cannot operate a business in accordance with the law due to their beliefs, that individual can and should avoid entering into that kind of business. Most Australians would not countenance the idea of rolling back anti-discrimination laws to allow for deeply held beliefs about race or gender, and yet there are those who have suggested such changes to allow for deeply held beliefs about people who are LGBTIQ.
Doing so would again cross the line from protecting religious freedom to privileging religious belief over the rights of others, and in doing so, it would be difficult to prevent discrimination on any level when beliefs are given as the justification. This would move Australia firmly backwards.
There should also be firm limits placed on the interference of religion or religious beliefs with public education. There have been strong objections to the teaching of diversity or sexual orientation or gender in schools. Again, these objections come strongest and most often from those who oppose the teaching of this information on religious grounds. A similar objection is sometimes made to the teaching of evolution science, though this is less common in Australia than in other countries. Article 18(4) of the ICCPR states: “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
It is important to note that in none of these cases are the educators teaching religion. Where a public school undertakes religious teaching, Australian laws made in accordance with the ICCPR should ensure that the views of parents are taken into account. This does not, and should not, apply to science, health or sex education classes. No public school should be prevented from teaching students the best and most current information we have on sexual orientation and gender diversity in response to objections from parents based on their personal religious beliefs.
This is a particularly important issue for PFLAG-CR. Clear and age-appropriate education on such matters can prevent the kind of bullying that stems from ignorance and misunderstanding. This kind of education explains to students the science behind sexual orientation and gender in humans and encourages acceptance and kindness toward one another. It helps children who are LGBTIQ to understand that they fall, just like every one of their peers, into the wide and diverse spectrum that makes up the human species. It helps their peers to know that, too. It is affirming and important in a society where incorrect, unscientific ideas about LGBTIQ people still persist. Some religious and other beliefs will privately affirm this public education and some will not, but no private religious belief should be able to derail evidence-based education in a public school.
Again, this would not constitute the protection of religious freedom – the freedom that allows parents to provide religious education to their children in their home or through their religious institution – but rather would be imposing the private beliefs of parents on the school system for subjects that are non-religious. PFLAG-CR again urges the government not to allow interference with public education under the guise of protecting religious freedom.
PFLAG-CR sees no dilemma here. Discrimination against human beings is simply that, regardless of who applies it and why. To allow exemption from observing human rights to those who would wish to wield such an exemption under any banner, is unjust and undermines our best societal values. PFLAG-CR remains thankful to the majority of Australians who, whatever their personal beliefs, already know this and who support LGBTIQ Australians in simply being who they are, living their lives as equal citizens with the same dignity and full inclusion under Australian law and within the wider community.