Freedom of Belief – Australian Human Rights Commission


The Australian Human Rights Commission, in association with the Australian Multicultural Foundation, RMIT University and Monash University, and Religiohns for Peace Australia, has conducted a major research and consultation project on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century.

The specifically human freedom to practise freely one’s chosen religion and to change freely one’s religious allegiance is one of the most fundamental of human rights. Over 86 per cent of the world’s population claim a religious faith, and in all the geographical regions of the world with the exception of the European world, between 80 and 90 per cent of people see religion as very important personally (Pew Research Center 2002). Yet the freedom of religion and belief remains under attack in different parts of the world, or new challenges are arising, as is happening in Australia.

Articles 2 and 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Freedom of Religion and Belief have provided the international legal basis since WWII. Article 18 reads, Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. It was in 1966 to be reinforced by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18.3 proscribes only those limitations on the right which are prescribed by law and are necessary ‘to protect public safety, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others’. In 1981 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a non-binding declaration, Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief which more stringently require states to eliminate religious discrimination and emphasises the right of parents to educate their children according to their religious beliefs (Evans 2009).

In the Australian context, Section 116 of the Commonwealth of Australian Constitution Act states that The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. Unlike France and the United States, Australia, like Canada, has followed a more moderate model in the separation of religion and state e.g. Federal and State governments fund the establishment and running of private religious schools who now educate close to a third of the nation’s children. There are now 35 full-time Muslim schools in Australia, and the private religious sector educates over 30 per cent of the nation’s children.

Religions for Peace Australia is currently involved in a current project for the Australian Human Rights Commission on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st century. The final report will be available until mid-2010. Thus this paper is an interim report. The resulting report will follow an earlier 1998 report published in the early years of the Howard government. Most of its recommendations were not implemented. The recommendations focussed around a new federal Religious Freedom Act which defined religion and system of belief in a broad way to incorporate atheistic, agnostic and humanist beliefs. It has never been enacted.

Other recommendations covered the protection of indigenous heritage, indigenous burials, autopsy and spiritual beliefs, female genital mutilation, on Jehovah’s Witnesses and their refusal to allow their children to have a blood transfusion on religious grounds, the repeal of witchcraft and fortune-telling laws and coercive tactics in religious belief. Two key matters from the 1998 report are still with the Australian people, namely, employment preference for religious organisations as an exemption from the equal opportunity legislation and on the proscribing of public incitement to hatred on the basis of religion and belief known as the religious vilification law.

The Project Methodology

In the current project for the Australian Human Rights Commission, the following methodology has been adopted:

  1. Literature Review: a thorough literature review is being conducted to ascertain the latest policy and practice on protecting the freedom of religion and belief, including the broader issues such as the regulation and management of ethnic and religious diversity and the role of the State.
  2. Commissioning of Selected Papers: Papers on particular topics such as religion and state, health care and religious freedom and on the legal aspects of protecting religious freedom, each written by a leading authority, have been commissioned.
  3. Focussed Group Consultations: Consultations with religious leaders have been conducted in small groups in every Australian state and territory. Religious denominations with more than 10,000 members according to the census data, including secular and humanist groups, were invited to participate. A discussion brief was prepared covering seven areas with prompt questions for each area. The seven areas are: (a) the evaluation of the 1998 report (b) religion and the state – the Constitution, roles and responsibilities (c) religion and state – practice and expression (d) security issues in the aftermath of September 11th (e) the interface of religious, political and cultural aspirations (f) technology and its implications and (g) religion, cultural expression and human rights. Each focus group varied from 8 – 16 leaders each, and it was a very valuable learning experience for them.
  4. Public Electronic Consultation: A public electronic consultation was conducted by public advertisement in the nation’s Saturday newspapers followed by electronic or hard copy submissions in response to the discussion brief. An unprecedented response has been elicited with over 2,000 submissions – a research team is presently conducting a content analysis of these submissions many of which are available on the Commission’s website since they are considered as public documents.

Freedom of religion and belief in 21st century Australia

A research report prepared for the Australian Human Rights Commission

By Professor Gary Bouma, Professor Desmond Cahill, Dr Hass Dellal, and Athalia Zwartz

Download the Report in Word Format

Download the Report in PDF Format

For supplementary papers, submissions and additional material, see the main Freedom of Religion and Belief page on the Australian Human Rights Website