Intended contribution to Religious Freedom Roundtable, Australian Human Rights Commission
(scheduled for 18 Feb 2016, aborted 15 Feb)

Preface

We agree with Chapter 3 of the Issues Paper (HRC, 22 Oct 2015) that religious freedom has two components (UDHR, Art. 18), and that freedom to manifest one’s belief, like freedom of expression, is not absolute but subject to principles of justice. We support the Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief (European Union, 2013), which are spelled out in terms of equality, non-discrimination and universality.

We note the summary of the Religious Freedom Roundtable, held on 5 November 2015, posted on the HRC website under Summary Paper. Despite its welcome admission, that ‘religious freedom encompasses the beliefs of all religions, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to have a religious faith,’ this document proceeds to argue as if government had an interest in the advancement of religion. It appears to deny the principle of secularism (Holyoake, 1851), which HSV upholds – along with many other unbelievers and religious liberals – and to hark back instead to the reverential age of feudalism. We urge government policy to be forward-looking rather than reactionary.

Recommendations

[Compare our Secular Manifesto, 2013]

1 – Secularism: there must be clear separation between religion and the State. No laws made by parliaments nor decisions of executive government should privilege or promote religion.

Rationale.  Principles of government should ideally be understandable by anyone and therefore rational. Secularism is not merely ‘a belief in no religious belief’ (despite HRC, Freedom of religion and belief in 21st century Australia, 2011, page 9). Secular government protects against systematic religious persecution.

2 – Government resources should not be used to support particular religious views, programs of religious instruc­tion, or the employment of religious functionaries in educational settings. National and state curricula should include the study of a range of religious and non-religious world-views, taught by professionally trained teachers.

Rationale.  In today’s diverse society, sectarian indoctrination is socially divisive and not in the public interest;  it hampers the personal development of young people and prevents them from choosing for themselves. This is a case for freedom from religion. Conversely, general education about world-views mediates diversity and fosters understanding and tolerance.

3 – Support visitor programs for schools to educate students about different faith traditions and those without religious belief.

Rationale.  Both religious and State schools in Victoria welcome such a program.

4 – Exemptions & exceptions. The ‘advance­ment of religion’ should be removed from the statutory definition of charity, and religious organizations should not enjoy automatic tax-exempt status. Religious organizations should be subject to anti-discrimination laws in employment and service provision.
Government funding to religious organizations such as schools and hospitals should be subject to rigorous accountability to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws and the absence of proselytizing.

Rationale.  In the interest of social equality, religious organizations should be subject to the same laws as other organizations. For example, in Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010, §§ 82 to 84 are objectionable. Discrimination on religious grounds is allowable provided it is not adverse discrimination.

5 – Adherents of different world-views should agree on universal values which are common to all.

Rationale.  Practical ethics stem from the human condition, not from religious faith. The Golden Rule is a solid basis for mediating difference between group interests.

Stephen Stuart

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