2019 is shaping as a year of reckoning for religious freedom in Australia, with the Church welcoming a Federal Government move to protect freedom of religion in law.
“Our preference is that the law recognise religious freedom in a positive way as a basic, internationally-protected human right – and one that deserves protection,” the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference spokesman on religious freedom Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said.
The Government released its response on December 13 to a review into religious freedom by an expert panel chaired by Philip Ruddock, announcing it would legislate for a bill in 2019 that would protect religious people from being discriminated against on the grounds of their religion.
The review received 15,000 public submissions.
“The release of the religious freedom review will help Australians have a more informed debate on how best to recognise religious freedom in Australian law,” Archbishop Comensoli said.
“We will be examining the Government’s response to the report to ensure it provides adequate protection for religious freedom.
“The major political parties have expressed their support for freedom of religion to be adequately addressed in Australian law, and we look forward to them making good on their commitments.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his Government would create a Religious Discrimination Act and install a Freedom of Religion Commissioner to handle religious discrimination complaints.
Ruddock Review panellist Jesuit Father Frank Brennan told Sky News the Coalition’s measures would update the nation’s “legal architecture” and help facilitate respectful discussions.
He said a bill would protect conservative citizens of faith from being discriminated against by an “increasingly secular society”.
Mr Morrison – a prominent advocate for religious freedom measures during last year’s same-sex marriage debate – said there was “no more fundamental liberty that any human being has” than the right to decide what to believe, and the right to practise that religious belief.
“It’s about protecting Australians, and an Australian’s right to believe in what they want to believe … choices that they believe makes them stronger, equips them better to deal with the many challenges that life brings them,” he said.
He will push to introduce protection laws before a federal election, potentially in May 2019, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has offered Labor’s in-principle support, adding that he did not want religion to become an election issue.
Mr Morrison avoided any immediate confrontation over one of the hottest issues connected with religious freedom – the move to strip religious schools of their right to expel gay, lesbian and transgender students.
He has referred the issue – along with that of LGBTI teachers – to a review by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which will not be completed until the second half of 2019.