The great divide where religious beliefs and the
Faith is accommodated In Australia, but there is piecemeal protection for religious freedom.
24 August, 2017
Reproduced under Creative Commons licence
In a nation that is increasingly secular, religion still plays a vital role in the way we run our country. In this series, we examine the role of religion in Australian politics and education. Read other articles in the series here.
Australia is a multi-faith society. The
2016 Census shows that, while the mix of beliefs has changed over the years, Australia remains a pretty religious
In the last census, nearly 70% of Australians
self-identified as religious. The number of Australians who
self-identified as Christian in the census has fallen
from 88.2% in 1966 to 52.1% in 2016.
The number of Australians identifying as being of another
religion has grown from 0.8% to 8.2%, with Islam (2.6%),
Buddhism (2.4%) and Hinduism (1.9%) being the largest
The number who self-identified in the category of "no
religion" has grown from 0.8% to 30.1%. This category
includes having secular beliefs, other spiritual beliefs or
having no religion. This makes it hard to be sure what these
Indigenous cultural beliefs were ignored
Australian history shows the benefits of accommodating
differing beliefs. We have done that very poorly with our
Aboriginal peoples. Their high rates of incarceration, poor
education and ill-health no doubt reflect that failure.
Even contemporary calls for marriage equality ignore the
lack of recognition of any Indigenous cultural marriages
The poor start continued with governors, from Arthur
swearing allegiance to "the Protestant succession" and
expressly repudiating "Romish beliefs in the
transubstantiation of the Eucharist".
As the Protestant/Catholic
sectarianism that plagued Australia's history into the
1970s shows us, it can take time for people with different
beliefs to learn how to live well with each other. Smaller
groups tend to be treated with suspicion, if not hostility,
until they are better understood and excel on the
battlefields, in sport, in politics and in business. This is
the history of Australia.
We can be proud of the progress made and of some of the
steps taken in contemporary Australia to help people work
and live with their religious faith in particular
circumstances. Think of:
NRL team Canterbury-Bankstown's employment contract
with Will Hopoate which enabled him to not play rugby
league on Sundays to accommodate his faith. He has now
decided that he will
play on Sundays, which is his choice to make;
the Australian Cricket Board and advertisers agreeing
that Usman Khawaja, a cricketer of Islamic faith, need
advertisements for alcohol;
the freedom of conscience that politicians, when
dealing with issues such as abortion and euthanasia (and
for at least one more year in relation to marriage), are
granted in the Labor Party and in the Liberal Party –
theoretically, at least – on all issues;
the exemption under electoral laws for people whose
beliefs prevent them from voting on particular days or
exemptions for religious bodies from
discrimination laws to enable them to operate
schools and ordain clergy in compliance with their own
the contents of religious confessions being protected
from disclosure in court by statute in Commonwealth law
and by the laws of most states and territories in order
to protect the confidentiality of the confessing
More by common sense than law
These all show good ways in which we accommodate faith
but they also show a piecemeal protection for religious
freedom. To the extent to which we enjoy religious freedom,
it is more by the good sense of everyday Australians than by
While Australia has committed to a number of
international instruments recognising the importance of
freedom of religion, there is in no general Commonwealth
religious anti-discrimination legislation.
Commonwealth laws prohibiting discrimination in a range
of areas such as age, race, sex and sexual identity but not
As a result, freedom of conscience and belief is not
treated with the importance our history and international
law call for and state and territory laws regularly override
When the courts are asked to intervene
Australian parliaments regularly pass laws without
sufficient protections for religious freedom. It is common
for Australian courts and human rights officials, when
having to decide between protecting religious freedom and
any other claim, to decline to protect religious freedom.
By way of example, Archbishop Porteous of Hobart was
subject to an
anti-discrimination claim for distributing a booklet
explaining traditional Catholic teaching on marriage.
Although ultimately discontinued, the court action was not
dismissed as trivial or lacking foundation at the outset.
And Christian Youth Camps (CYC), owned by the Christian
successfully sued for discrimination in Victoria for
politely declining a booking of its camping site by an
organisation for rural gay and lesbian youth.
The CYC declined the booking because it did not wish its
premises to be used in the promotion to young people of a
view of sexual morality at odds with the Christian Brethren
In 2013, a Victorian Catholic pro-life doctor was
investigated and disciplined for refusing to refer a
patient seeking a sex-selection abortion under a Victorian
law requiring doctors with a conscientious objection to
provide a referral to a doctor known not to share their
objection. Similar laws apply in the Northern Territory and
New South Wales.
And three Christians were
successfully prosecuted in Tasmania for protesting too
close to an abortion clinic.
In that state, the ACT, the Northern Territory, and
Victoria – with other states considering similar laws –
prayer, counselling and protest (no matter how quiet,
respectful or caring) is not allowed within designated areas
around abortion clinics.
Religion is not going away. Our laws can do a better job
of accommodating people of faith. Our history demands no