Submission to the Religious Freedom review

SBS reports the commencement of the inquiry into religious freedom

In the context of religious institutions seeking to ban doctors and patients from engaging in the lawful conduct of assisted dying, and in regard to similar discrimination regarding marriage equality, I've made a submission to Philip Ruddock's "Relgious Freedom" inquiry, in which I call on the Panel to attend properly to robust ethical process, through ten specific recommendations.

Download the submission PDF.

Conclusions of the submission

The Panel’s Terms of Reference and its conduct published to date indicate that this inquiry’s procedural base and process are far too narrow. A Parliamentary Committee inquiry followed by a public vote on religious freedoms would be the appropriate manner for the Federal Government to demonstrate consistency of equity in its deliberations on important social policy. Failure to do so would only confirm Government bias.

The Panel’s moves to publish submissions is to be commended, and all institutional and most personal submissions should be published. However, the Panel’s approach to entertaining and encouraging private appearances without recording or transcript is to be condemned as a serious transgression of proper and transparent public consultation. Failure to publish appearance transcripts would amplify perceptions of Government and Panel bias.

The Government’s Terms of Reference additionally convey implicit bias by requesting the Panel consider whether “freedom of religion” is “adequate”, overlooking the real and present condition of its excessiveness in some contexts. Repeated forms of bias will undermine public confidence in the Panel’s consultation, its report, and the Government.

The Panel must also expressly and carefully define “freedom of religion” given the lack of clarity from the Government, especially noting that the Terms of Reference include by explicit deduction the equal right to freedom from religion.

If the Panel recommends in favour of any special legal exemptions in regard to “freedom of religion”, it obliged to publish express, coherent and reasoned principles for (a) allowing exceptions for some religious beliefs but not others, and (b) allowing exceptions for beliefs held in ‘good conscience’ by the religious, but not the non-religious. To retain credibility, the Panel must refrain from arbitrary arguments such as axiomatic and normative claims.

The Panel must also expressly recognise that religious conscience is not a special class or standard of conscience and that arguing for protection of religious but not non-religious conscience is an unjustifiable form of special pleading. Multiple sources of evidence show that the religious are, on average, no more (and sometimes less) moral, and rather less rational, than the non-religious.

Additionally, the Panel must recommend the abolition of the legal recognition of ‘institutional conscience’, a fabricated pseudo-conscience that allows remote persons (such as a religious head office) with no direct and proper right to insert itself into local, private relationships (such as the therapeutic relationship between a doctor and her patient), to dictate prejudices and discrimination, and to arbitrarily deny citizens access to lawful conduct or opportunities in which they wish to participate. A reasonable exception to this is to allow exemptions only within religious facilities whose only purpose is worship — expressly excluding those that deliver non-religious services (such as health care, education or emergency housing) to the general public, or which derive any income from the public purse.

I commend these ethical procedural considerations to the Panel and the Government.

Recommendations of the submission

  1. That the Panel recommend a further and more detailed inquiry be conducted by a relevant Parliamentary Committee.
  2. That the Panel recommend an equitable voter poll, similar to the one for Marriage Equality, be conducted so that Australians may voice their views directly on any proposed changes to religious freedoms.
  1. That the Panel publish all institutional written submissions, and all private submissions except those that may give rise to risk of legal prosecution of their authors.
  2. That the Panel record and publish transcripts of all witness appearances.
  1. That the Panel expressly resolves that its Terms of Reference include amongst ‘human rights’ the right to freedom from religion, not merely of religion.
  2. That the Panel expressly consider and report on specific situations where lawful rights to religious freedom may currently be excessive and to recommend any necessary changes to legislation to address the imbalance.
  1. That the Panel defines precisely, in respect of this inquiry, what “freedom of religion” is, and, in light of “other human rights” that the definition includes by equity “freedom from religion.”
  1. That the Panel, if it supports any lawful exemptions from the general applicability of laws on the basis of religion, establishes and articulates coherent, robust and defensible principles for such exemptions, and not rely merely on axiomatic or currently normative religious claims about some beliefs but not others.
  1. That the Panel expressly acknowledge that religious conscience is not a special class or standard of conscience.
  2. That the Panel specifically reject the fabricated notion of ‘institutional conscience’ and deny special exemptions from general laws based on it, except potentially in the specific context of worship-only religious practice, that is, where general services (such as civil marriages, health care or education) are not being provided to the public nor financed in any part by public funds.



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