A continent in itself, Australia is a federal, parliamentary democracy. With a population in excess of 23.6 million, and a total area of 7,692,024 km2, it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

 
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Australian constitution (section 116) bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion or sets a religious test for a federal public office. The section only applies to legislation made by the Commonwealth and does not impose restrictions on the states of Australia. Only Tasmania has a similar provision in its constitution. The High Court has never ruled a legislative provision to be in contravention of Section 116 (Clarke, Keyzer & Stellios 2009, p. 1228).

There is no charter of general rights at the national level. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected at common law as well as in various statute laws which follow UN conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Favouring Christianity

Although the government is officially secular, it continues to favour Christianity for many public ceremonies. For example, each session of parliament begins with a joint recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Religious institutions in general also enjoy long-standing privileges in being exempt from paying tax and from complying with laws, such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act against discrimination and Australian Charities & Not-for-profits Commission Act for transparent governance. Details of religious tax exemption are given in Max Wallace’s polemic, The Purple Economy: supernatural charities, tax and the state (Aust. National Secular Association, 2007).

Individuals who suffer discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief have recourse under federal discrimination laws or through the court system and bodies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Federal laws that protect freedom of religion include the Racial Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Commission Act and the Workplace Relations Act. Public service employees who believe they are denied a promotion on religious grounds can appeal to the public service merit protection commissioner.

Education and children’s rights

The state governments permit religious education in public schools, generally taught by volunteers using approved curricula, to varying degrees. Public schools in New South Wales provide secular ethics classes as an alternative for students who do not attend religious instruction classes.  In other states, there is no secular alternative to religious education, but non-religious students may opt out of the class.

The government’s National School Chaplaincy Program, established in 2007, provides annual support of up to A$20,000 (US$20,800) per chaplain in urban areas and A$24,000 (US$24,960) in remote areas for government and non-government school communities to conduct chaplaincy services. In 2011 the government authorized A$222 million (US$230.9 million) to be disbursed between 2012 and 2014 to continue funding participating schools and extend funding to 1,000 more chaplains in remote and disadvantaged areas. In June 2012, following a challenge by a private individual, the High Court ruled that the program exceeded the Commonwealth’s spending powers. Later that month, parliament passed legislation authorizing the program. A further challenge by the same individual in 2014 found that legislation to contrary to the constitution. However, it was not under Section 116 but under Section 51 (xxiiiA) that the legistlation was found invalid; being that the Commonwealth did not have the power granted by the constitution to make such laws.

The federal government also provides funding to private schools, the majority of which are faith-based. This funding was challenged in 1964 and 1981 under Section 116 and, with the exception of justice Lionel Murphy, the majority of the judges read the religious freedom clause to have a very narrow scope rendering it effectively toothless Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth (“DOGS case”) [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)

Family, community and society

Social services

The privileged status of religion in society has allowed government to cede control of various social services to religious institutions. In January 2013 the federal government appointed a Royal Commission “to inquire into institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse and related matters”. The great majority of complaints have involved abusive clergy who were protected by their church, which was in turn accorded unwarranted deference by state authorities.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Unprotected free expression leads to “vilification” laws

There are no constitutional protections for freedoms of speech and the press, but in practice there is a free press and citizens have significant freedom of expression.

However, the federal government and several states have passed laws outlawing “racial vilification” and the states of Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria have extended those laws to also outlaw any “religious vilification”. The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act passed by Victoria in 2001 has been used several times to prosecute people for religious criticism. Section 8 (1) of the law states: “A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.”

 

References

  1. Clarke, Jennifer; Keyzer, Patrick; Stellios, James (2009). Hanks’ Australian Constitutional Law: Materials and Commentary (8th ed.). Chatswood, NSW: LexisNexis Butterworths. ISBN 978-0-409-32440-2.