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Australian bishops call for religious freedom laws to be updated after government receives report

religious freedom panel

Religious freedom: Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, former attorney general Philip Ruddock and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

THE Federal Government has received a report into religious freedom in Australia, but it could be weeks before the findings are made public.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered the review following concerns that last year’s legalisation allowing same-sex marriage could undermine freedom of religion.

Former attorney general Philip Ruddock has led a panel of experts, including Catholic lawyer Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, examining the issue.

The panel heard from Christian groups that argued religious schools should be able to teach children the value of traditional marriage without being reported to authorities over discrimination.

As well, there should be no legal detriment to anyone, in a workplace or elsewhere, expressing the view that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference called for laws to be updated to recognise religious freedom.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right,” the ACBC said in its submission.

“Australia’s laws need to be updated to ensure we continue to enjoy freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the associated freedom of association.”

The bishops said Catholic schools should be allowed to refuse employing staff whose personal behaviour or actions were “contrary to the values of the school”.

“The freedom of Catholic schools to employ staff who embrace Christianity is essential for providing effective religious education and faith formation to their students,” they said.

However, Church critics argued religious schools should be forced to hire LGBTI teachers.

A submission by the Equality Campaign called for the repeal of church rights, including the right to hire and fire on the basis of gender and sexuality in line with religious teaching.

“The law already goes too far in allowing religious organisations to discriminate through broad exemptions in federal and state discrimination laws,” law lecturer and Queensland director of Australian Marriage Equality Peter Black said in a submission made on behalf of The Equality Campaign lobbying for the repeal of church rights.

The bishops’ submission addressed many practical issues of concern to religious believers – including whether churches can legally refuse to hire their halls for wedding receptions that go against their beliefs, and laws that force doctors who disagree with abortion to refer patients to another medical practitioner.

It pointed out that the Church provides Australia’s largest non-government grouping of hospitals, aged and community care services – about 10 per cent of health care services.

The Church provides social services for more than 450,000 Australians each year, and has more than 760,000 students in its schools.

The bishops’ submission recommended the updating of Australian laws with a specific law recog­nising religious freedom separate to exemptions, and exceptions in anti-discrimination laws.

The review panel received more than 16,000 submissions from churches, lawyers, individuals and lobby groups.

It will be now up to the Government to initiate any legislative protections.

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