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Human Rights “Roundtable” – has Australia become a Soft Theocracy?

By Brian Morris

Has the Christian lobby influenced the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in discrimination against gays? If the answer is “no”, why has the HRC set up a Religious Freedom’ Roundtable for the faithful, on 5th November?

This forum is not about ‘religious freedom’, it simply reflects a resurgent Christian lobby clamouring for new exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. As one clear example, Church leaders want special “religious liberty” for any Christians in the lucrative wedding industry to refuse services to gays, once same-sex marriage is finally legalised. They want to give caterers, photographers, outfitters, and others the “liberty” to snub gay couples who violate their religious beliefs.

It’s been brewing since the HRC’s Tim Wilson took office in 2014, and while he is also “defacto” Commissioner for LGBTI issues there are legitimate questions about how far he’ll go in shaping HR policy, to accommodate Christian anger at the very idea of marriage equality. He is reported as saying, “…we can design a law that’s more mindful of religious freedoms.”

‘Freedom of religion’ has been mandated for decades under a UN charter, adopted by Australia, and religion already has many ‘extended freedoms’ – including exemptions from anti-discrimination laws in education, health and aged care.

Consider also their grants and annual tax breaks worth billions; that Australia has the largest number of religious schools per capita in the OECD; that religious instruction and a national Chaplaincy Program persists in public schools – despite government funding twice being ruled unconstitutional by the High Court.

It can be said these privileges, even now, violate the basic tenets of a secular Australia. Many will add that the nation is already a “soft theocracy (1) – where Church and State share a cosy symbiotic relationship. And this image may harden if anticipated policy recommendations flow from the upcoming Roundtable.

Clearly, Human Rights are central to secular philosophy, but so too is the separation of Church and State. ‘Freedom of religion’ does not mean a ‘right’ to Christian privilege, or to use any faith as the pretext for exemptions from the law.”

Recently, the ABC reported comments by Anglican Bishop, Robert Forsyth, who argues that “wedding service providers should have the ‘religious freedom’ to refuse to cater for gay couples.” The report included references to countries where same-sex marriage is legal, but none have seen the backlash predicted in this new wave of Christian opposition.

Bishop Forsyth heads the Religious Freedom Reference Group and is expected to attend HRC’s forum. So too is Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, who goes further by calling for “religious Liberty” to nullify secular policy.

Clearly there are two sides to this vexed question, so it’s surprising that invitations to submit ideas for the event were sent primarily to faith-based organisations. Secular and rationalist groups, who have much to say on this issue, appear to have been an afterthought.

Of the 200 invitations to make submissions, only four are reported to have gone to secular organisations. At the forum they will be joined by forty representatives from Australian Churches and faith-based institutions. By any yardstick there is considerable imbalance in representation – a disconcerting factor given that the non-religious viewpoint is determined as having equal rights to ‘freedom of expression’, under international conventions. It’s particularly strange when Australians are now more than 50 per cent non-Christian.

The HRC decision only to invite national bodies creates an inbuilt bias – with scores of Churches and national religious lobby groups, compared to a handful with a “secular” voice. By comparison, the Australian Bureau of Statistics called for “all submissions” with ideas for changes following the 2011 Census – including on the “Religious Affiliation” question.

Commissioner Wilson loses sight of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). It serves to protect both ‘Religions and Beliefs’ – a mandate that specifically includes rights of expression for all non-religious and atheist beliefs. The Roundtable should be focused on ‘Freedom of Belief’, not solely for ‘Religion’.

So, what are we seeing here? Surely not a religious Trojan Horse to lobby for new anti-discrimination exemptions when gay marriage is finally legalised — adding to Church exemptions already enjoyed in education, health and aged care?”

Bishop Forsyth and Archbishop Fisher are among many religious leaders campaigning for exclusive powers to discriminate against those who offend their beliefs. Religion cannot be regarded as occupying the moral high ground – it is in no way superior to secular values; and human rights does not mean religious privilege…!

There are elements of concern that also surround the Human Rights Commissioner and his agenda – when Tim Wilson was appointed he was dubbed the “Freedom Commissioner.” In principle that may sound laudable but we might also consider that prior to his role with the HRC he was a policy director with the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and we need to finally understand his objectives in terms of new ‘freedoms’ for the religious.

Shortly after assuming his new role he gave a speech at the Australian Catholic University. It was titled ‘The forgotten freedom of worship’ and in it he said, “In short, religion is about everyone’s relationship to their creator”. That sentiment is not shared by a public majority – and in matters that may lead to people of faith having a superior privilege we need to exercise extreme care; and this HRC Roundtable is no exception.

From the outset there has been a drive for a religious forum, and points of contention include; ignoring the UNDHR definition of ‘religion and belief’; inviting predominately faith-based groups to make submissions; allowing only token secular inclusion at the Roundtable; permitting the forum to appear heavily biased towards a Christian view of ‘Religious Rights’ under the law; and aiming to frame policy from what seems a predicable outcome.

We should also reflect on the HRC wording of its “Guiding Principles” for this ‘Religious Freedom’ Roundtable – particularly items 3 and 10 – which give an unmistakable Christian perspective on morality and the supernatural. Passages refer to religion as, “the moral and spiritual guidance of our nation” and with an objective to, “uphold the law and improve Australia’s moral and spiritual guidance.”

It is unacceptable, in a supposed secular democracy, to suggest that religion has some moral superiority – over and above the broad philosophical ethics and humanitarian values shared by most non-religious Australians. One can only trust that in the wash-up of this religious Roundtable, the Human Rights Commission will not allow it to be just another gateway for politicised Christianity to win new legal exemptions – and harden Australia’s image as a Soft Theocracy.


(1) Soft Theocracy — “A state where church and government purposes coincide to garnishee taxpayers’ money and resources, structurally through tax exemptions and functionally through grants and privileges.” Realising Secularism: Australia and New Zealand. 2010. Ed. Max Wallace.

Brian Morris is a founder of The National Secular Lobby. The National Secular Lobby is a newly formed secular organisation promoting ‘secular politics’, the raft of social issues that relate in some way to the Separation of Church and State. Click here to see their aims and objectives.



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  1. paul walter

    My guess is, if these people were actual Christians there would be no ostracising of gays.

    Let (s)he who is without fault cast the first stone.

    These people need to get off other people’s backs and pay attention to their own affairs more intently. See not the speck in your neighbour’s eye, lest you miss the tree-trunk in your own.

  2. paul walter

    I don’t know if it is a soft theocracy. It IS authoritarian.

  3. corvus boreus

    So both Forsythe and Fisher believe that evangelists should be allowed to refuse service to paople who they deem ‘immoral’.
    Would this also apply to those who choose religious creeds that validate racism (eg “black people are cursed with the mark of Cain”, “the Jews killed Christ”)? Perhaps Moslems should also have a legislated right to refuse to serve any “infidels”?
    Would this right to actively discriminate against people on purely religious grounds extend to medical professionals refusing treatment of people they deemed ‘morally inappropriate?

    The frocked clique show their colours in the fact that they focus their energies on seeking to enshrine the right to hatefully discriminate solely upon the basis of adherence to dogmatic superstition.

  4. Loz

    Tim Wilson showed his bias, pomposity and lack of foresight when appearing on Q&A with regard to his comments about Zacky Mallah. Also is rather bizarre comment regarding the discussion on PPL “Not my choice that women have children. It’s genetic.” This man with his extreme right wing views should not be a representative of our democratic society. The frightening part is that there are lots of Tim Wilsons in this government.

  5. i have a nugget of pure green

    LGBTI people have been quite used to bigotry, homophobia, abuse and exclusion from the Catholic/Christian churches for quite a while now.

    If people in the wedding industry don’t want the business i am quite sure that the LBGTI community, their families, friends and people who actually do have a conscience about how minorities are treated will be quite happy to take their multiple millions of dollars of business to people that don’t have this throwback/retarded attitude.

    When this happens, i suspect that the religiously bigoted will have a big hissy fit about how their businesses are failing and it is all the gay mafias fault due to an imaginary agenda against people expressing their religious beliefs.

  6. diannaart

    How would the Christian Lobby feel if the same scrutiny that is currently applied to Islam was extended to Christianity?

  7. Kyran

    If the purpose of the roundtable is to establish religious freedom, I don’t have a problem. As the article states, they already have significant exemptions and freedoms. You already have the right to exercise your religious belief’s, including association with like minded people. Unless your Muslim. (Big shout out to the enlightened).
    If the purpose is to establish a religious forum to assist in the development of human rights policy, I do have a problem. If this forum is to discuss marriage equality, haven’t most of these ‘religions’ excluded themselves from the debate by their outdated belief’s? Haven’t they already neutered their argument that they can lecture (and control) ‘non believers’ rights whilst seeking exemptions from state laws?
    If they want to establish the validity of their ‘christian’ values in formulating human rights, shouldn’t they be a tad more vocal on Australia’s abuses of so many human rights?
    The most recent figures I can find on marriage state that 72.5% of marriages were conducted in 2013 by civil celebrants. The majority of marriages since 1999 have been by civil celebrants. Yet only 4 of the 200 invitations went to secular organisations. If marriage equality is to be on the agenda and have any credibility as a discussion, the combined churches participation should be no more than 30% of the table.
    As an economic incentive, they can use a much smaller table. As an environmental incentive, there will be less emissions of toxic drivel.
    Thank you, Mr Morris. Take care

  8. Pingback: Opinion: Australian Independent Media Network 19.10.15. HRC "Religious Freedom" Roundtable | Plain Reason

  9. Bronte ALLAN

    We are getting more right wing/evangelistic/moralistic/anti LGBP etc people every day, just like the millions in the USA who all agree to these outdated, so-called “freedoms”! What “religious freedom (?)” do we need? At least we do not have “In God We Trust” plastered over money etc like in America! The only “religion” we should be concerned about is the rise in the number of Muslims & their crackpot “religious” (?) ideas, & with the way they are swiftly infiltrating into Western Society. Our public schools do not NEED any religious instruction./lessons etc, why not follow Victoria’s example & get rid of religious “stuff” in schools & provide advice, instruction, lessons etc into the increasing volume of women haters/abusers & child abusers etc?


    In the northern suburbs of Perth, there is a concerted effort by the happy clappers to ensure that they are represented at local, state and federal level. They are more than happy to game the process and are branch stacking to gain the candidacy of generally fairly safe Liberal seats. It will be anti SSM first, then we’ll expect to see abolition of abortion, before compulsory religious education including creationism as a science topic next. Its pretty bloody scary. And of course, they don’t admit their religious leanings in any of their election materials…

  11. Meg Wallace

    Excellent article! We do not need more religious freedom: religion is privileged enough in our society with funding, tax exemptions, religion in government schools and religious influence in government etc. As Morris points out, the HRC ignores the fact that freedom involves all beliefs as well as no belief, that the freedom is equal for everyone. What we need is freedom from religion.

  12. Rod at SECOA

    I think it’s a mistake to make too many assumptions about the invitations and the intent without being aware of some behind the scenes info. I am attending on behalf of SECOA (Secular Coalition of Australia) and expect to meet a wide variety of religious attendees, with varying views on what religious freedom means and how it should play out in Australian law and society. I don’t assume they will all be after the same thing, though they will likely have much in common.

    I only know of three non-religious invitees – Atheist Foundation of Aust (AFA), Rationalist Society of Aust (RSA) and SECOA, and they are there because they put their hands up and requested a hearing. If they hadn’t it’s likely the meeting would have consisted of religious reps only – but is that the religious groups fault or ours? SECOA wrote to the HRC suggesting the table was incomplete without some non-religious input (quoting the obvious demographics). We invited RSA and AFA to join us because of their national reach and numbers, mature relationship with us and geographical location. This is not the first time a direct approach seeking dialogue in a predominately religious forum has been accepted and I would recommend that more freethought groups try it in future rather than complaining of not being listened to. We’d be happy to advise on or facilitate such approaches so long as the intent is civil and secular rather than anti-religious. You can message SECOA on Facebook.

  13. Pingback: Australia, secular, politics, news, atheism, antitheism

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