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Australian Bishops defend religious freedom as ‘fundamental human right’

fight for religious freedom

Human rights: “Exemptions are in (law) … to allow religious groups to operate in accordance with their beliefs.”

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

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right,” the bishops said in a submission to the Federal Government’s Religious Freedom Review.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned the review following last year’s “yes” vote on same-sex marriage, with hearings conducted by a five-member expert panel chaired by former attorney general Philip Ruddock.

Amongst more than 12,000 submissions, Church critics argue religious schools should be forced to hire LGBTI teachers, and that all anti-discrimination law should be abolished.

“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.

“We hope the panel respects this and looks at removing, not adding, barriers that prevent LGBTI from accessing services.”

Mr Black’s submission is made on behalf of the Equality Campaign that is lobbying 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.

However the bishops’ submission says “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”.

It says Catholic schools should be allowed to refuse employing staff whose personal behaviour or actions are “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,” the bishops said.

The bishops’ submission addresses 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 points 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 recommends Australian laws be updated with a specific law recog­nising religious freedom separate to exemptions, and ­exceptions in anti-discrimination laws.

“Exceptions are in legislation in order to allow religious groups to operate in accordance with their beliefs, particularly with regard to whom they employ,” the submission says.

“(But) the language of exemptions is misleading and fails to recognise that religious freedom is not a special permission to discriminate granted by government in contradiction to the general law, but a fundamental human right that government is obliged to protect and which helps to define what kinds of discrimination are in fact unjust.”

The expert review panel is considering evidence in closed-door hearings from some of the key “stakeholders” – including churches, human rights groups and marriage equality campaigners.

Mr Ruddock’s panel includes the president of the Human Rights Commission Rosalind Croucher, retired Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett, Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer Fr Frank Brennan, and University of Queensland constitutional law professor Nicholas Aroney.

It is due to report to the Prime Minister by March 31.

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