Curtail religious privileges, human rights body urges

Prominent human rights organisation Liberty Victoria has thrown out a challenge to an inquiry set up by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

In the wake of the overwhelming vote in favour of marriage equality, Mr Turnbull ordered a review to see whether Australian law "adequately protects" the human right to freedom of religion.

Liberty Victoria has turned this on its head by telling the inquiry that religious privileges are far too extensive and must be rolled back.

Jamie Gardiner, a Liberty vice-president, said today that such privileges are inconsistent with the freedom of religion because this freedom is based on equality, meaning equal treatment and no special advantages or disadvantages between religious bodies or people with no religion.

“A small number of deficiencies, such as the lack of Commonwealth legislation protecting employees from discrimination on the basis of religion, should be fixed by enacting a Human Rights Act or Charter,” he said.

The resounding success of marriage equality in the postal survey and the correspondingly emphatic public rejection of the numerous claims of the “no” campaign, together with the appalling revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, signal a new climate of public opinion in which the removal of unjustified religious privileges bears little political risk.

“Public opinion polls in recent years show most Australians favour removing religious privilege", said Mr Gardiner. 

For religions, these include:

  • exemptions from rates and taxes,
  • exemptions from anti-discrimination laws,
  • freedom from scrutiny and accountability,
  • privileged treatment under charity laws, and
  • undue and disproportionate political influence.

“These are clear privileges that cannot be justified and so must be repealed," he said.

"Liberty calls for an end to the school chaplains program, with its funds moved to professional psychological and counselling support to students and teachers according to need."

It also wants an end to 'Special Religious Instruction' by agents of particular religions in public schools and schools which receive any form of Commonwealth funding, direct or indirect, said Mr Gardiner. “If a school includes religious materials in its teaching it must be only by qualified teachers and fairly include non-partisan reference to the many religions in or relevant to Australia, including the existence of non-religious ways of being.”