The Australian Human Rights Commission and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission jointly delivered a position paper on Freedom of Religion in Australia: a focus on serious harms online, on 1 July 2020. The Position Paper concludes with several recommendations as to how governments in Australia can improve protections for the right to freedom of religion in Victoria and Australia.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) are each independent statutory bodies, dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights.
The AHRC is Australia’s national human rights institution, established by the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth). The AHRC has a number of functions relating to the protection and promotion of human rights, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. These functions include reviewing current and proposed legislation, conducting research and education, and inquiring into acts and practices that may be inconsistent with human rights. The Commission can inquire into, and attempt to settle by conciliation, complaints alleging that acts or practices of the Commonwealth were inconsistent with or contrary to human rights and complaints alleging discrimination in employment. The Commission can also receive and conciliate complaints alleging unlawful discrimination under the federal anti-discrimination statutes.
VEOHRC is responsible for protecting and promoting human rights in Victoria. It has responsibilities under three laws that together protect an individual’s right to hold a religious belief or no religious belief, and practise that belief free from discrimination and vilification:
- The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person in certain areas of public life based on ‘religious belief or activity’.
- The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) prohibits religious vilification.
- The Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) protects the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief
VEOHRC can receive and conciliate complaints of religious discrimination or vilification that arise under the Equal Opportunity Act or Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. VEOHRC also educates people about the rights and responsibilities contained in Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and raises awareness across the community about the importance of equality and human rights.
The Position Paper is based on the AHRC’s and VEOHRC’s collective experience and research in this area. In addition, the two Commissions convened joint roundtables in Sydney (11 June 2019) and Melbourne (27 June 2019) on the topic of serious harms on the basis of religion. Leaders representing a wide variety of religious organisations, as well as academic researchers with relevant expertise, participated in these events.
The roundtables provided an opportunity:
- to discuss the available research on serious harms on the basis of religion
- for the religious organisations represented to share their experience of serious harms
- to discuss ways in which these problems should be addressed.
While this work was not prompted by any particular event, much of it has taken place in the aftermath of the killing of 51 people at the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch in March 2019. Also in recent memory was the killing of 11 people in an antisemitic attack at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, United States, on 27 October 2018. One school-aged roundtable participant lost a relative in the Christchurch attacks. Her deeply moving personal testimony reminded participants of the need to counter the rise of white supremacist extremism, which is often targeted at religious or racial minorities.
From the Foreword
The right to freedom of religion is recognised in international human rights law and receives some protection in Australia’s federal, state and territory laws. Many people of faith report that Australia offers peace and freedom to practise their religion. Indeed, some have come to this country from places where they were persecuted for their beliefs.
However, we also know that some people of faith in Australia experience serious harms on the basis of their religious identity. We use the term ‘serious harms’ to include experiences of violence, abuse, intimidation, severe discrimination and some forms of vilification. Serious harms can occur as a result of activity in the physical world and online. These actions have terrible effects on individuals and communities, and they are a serious violation of the human right to freedom of religion.
We were profoundly shocked by the killing of 51 worshippers at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March 2019. The person who has pleaded guilty to these killings is an Australian. The repercussions of this atrocity, which occurred so close to home, have been felt by Australia’s many Muslim communities, as well as by Victorians and Australians of all faiths—and none. Though Australia has never experienced an attack on people of faith on this scale, we should think carefully as a nation about the prevalence and effects of serious harms perpetrated on the basis of people’s religion, and about how we can best address this problem.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) have come together to produce this Position Paper. It examines some research on serious harms experienced by religious communities and draws on two roundtable consultations that the AHRC and VEOHRC held in Sydney and Melbourne in June 2019. The Position Paper concludes with several recommendations as to how governments in Australia can improve protections for the right to freedom of religion in Victoria and Australia.
Webinar of the Launch
A webinar to launch ‘Freedom of Religion in Australia: a focus on serious harms’, a research paper prepared by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC). The event features Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner; Kristen Hilton, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner; Julie Nathan, Research Director at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry; and Derya Iner, Senior Lecturer and Research Coordinator in the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation at Charles Sturt University.