Religious Freedom and Canon Law

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Religions for Peace Australia Chair, Prof. Des Cahill has spoken of the global religious trends that were impacting on freedom of religion and belief in Australia, in a wide-ranging address today at the Annual Conference of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand in Melbourne.

In 2011, the Australian Human Rights Commission, in association with the Australian Multicultural Foundation, RMIT University and Monash University, and Religions for Peace Australia, delivered the final report of a national research and consultation project on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century.

Professor Cahill is one of the co-authors of the Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia report commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which showed the country was significantly divided between those who saw Australia as Christian, secularist or multi-faith.

Des Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia

Professor Cahill is Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University. He told the conference that the major intellectual and political issues facing religious groups today were:

  • the definition of religion;
  • the intersection of religious law and the civil/criminal codes of the state;
  • the prevention by the state of religious extremism; and,
  • the limitations to be placed on reasonable accommodation of religious practices that contravene basic Australian values and equal opportunity laws.

Referring to several high-profile Catholic submissions to the AHRC report from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the archdioceses of Sydney and Canberra-Goulburn and from the Catholic Employment Commission as well as the ecumenical Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty, Professor Cahill said:

“They were deficient in not fully acknowledging the emergence of a multi-faith Australia because this is changing how we defend religious freedom and address many controversial issues in a secularist environment.

“There is little sympathy in Catholic circles for religious vilification laws about which small religious groups such as Jewish, Islamic and Sikh groups have understandably strong and vociferous feelings.

“More importantly, there seems not to be an articulated philosophy of the religion-state relationship that goes beyond the Vatican II documents.

“And in the Catholic defence of the exemptions under the equal opportunity legislation – which I would think ought to be encased in the discourse of cultural and religious accommodation – there is the attitude of ‘leave us alone; we are a private organisation’ even when the religious organisations may be recipients of large sums of public funds.

“There is much talk in the submissions about ‘organisational ethos’ and ‘Catholic ethos’ regarding Catholic agencies but such phrases are left vague and equivocal with no attempt to operationalise what it is that sustains the Catholic organisational ethos or what are its components.”


Image Credits: Westender; Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand