By Matthew Lau
The committee that is examining Australia’s freedom of religion has yet to make its recommendations to the Ruddock inquiry public, nor has it delivered the report to the government.
Former Liberal frontbencher Philip Ruddock is the chair of a panel tasked with reviewing protections for religious freedom.
The Expert Panel leading the review also includes Australian Human Rights Commission President Rosalind Croucher, the Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett SC, constitutional lawyer Nicholas Aroney, and Jesuit Priest, Father Frank Brennan.
Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Kevin Andrews MP, who is also Defence and Trade Human Rights Sub-Committee Chair, said many submissions have expressed concern that freedom of religion or belief is being challenged by the emphasis placed on other human rights.
The Sub-Committee will hear evidence from activists, legal scholars, and religious ministers who have an interest in the interaction between religious freedom and other rights.
Catholic Women’s League Tasmania Inc made its submission to the inquiry at the most recent public hearing in Hobart on 5 June, stating that its people believe that religious freedom is, unfortunately, under attack in Australia.
“As Catholic women we reject the notion that the millions of Australians who align themselves with the Christian churches, are simply a fringe group, to be stereotyped as unjustly discriminatory, and therefore to be disqualified from contributing to the important debates about Australian life,” Submission 45 reads.
“An attack on the freedom of religion is an attack on the very heart of a country and its people,” it continues.
The Religious Freedom Review was announced in November last year, in wake of concerns raised by church leaders across Australia, that religious freedom was under threat due to the legislation of same-sex marriage.
Peter Dutton, Liberal MP and Home Affairs Minister, has gone on record to say that he is in support of the review – leading to legal protections for religious groups, including schools.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had previously promised the review would be made available to the public “in due course”.
Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the School of Law at The University of Notre Dame Australia Sydney Campus, said UNDA had the privilege of being visited by Hon Ruddock, Prof Croucher, Prof Aroney, and Fr Brennan from 14 to 16 February.
“We held a Religious Freedom conference in conjunction with [three other] universities. The panel members were able to ask questions of the academics and other people attending the conference,” he said.
Prof Quinlan told The eRecord that Mr Ruddock has delivered the report to the Prime Minister, and that they are waiting for the cabinet to decide what to do with the recommendations from the Ruddock inquiry, which have yet to have been made public.
“My hope is for the federal response to take into account Australia’s international obligations to protect Freedom of Religion, conscience and beliefs. Particularly under the international covenant under civil and political rights to which Australia is a signatory to Article 18.
“Implementing Article 18 is a federal rather than a state commitment and obligation.”
Currently, there is no federal level Religious Freedom Act in Australia.
However, Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia addresses legislation in respect of religion by stating:
“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
The submissions and details of the public hearings can be found on the inquiry website: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Freedomofreligion