The Catholic Church in Australia has welcomed the Federal Government's long-awaited release of the Religious Freedom Review by former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and a panel that included Jesuit lawyer and human rights advocate Fr Frank Brennan.
Melbourne's Archbishop Peter Comensoli, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference spokesman on religious freedom, said the release of the Religious Freedom Review would help Australians have a more informed debate on how best to recognise religious freedom in Australian law.
"Our preference is that the law recognise religious freedom in a positive way as a basic, internationally-protected human right – and one that deserves protection," he said.
"The major political parties have expressed their support for freedom of religion to be adequately addressed in Australian law, and we look forward to them making good on their commitments."
But there are doubts about whether any of the recommendations will be enacted before a General Election due in May 2019, with only 10 sitting days scheduled for Parliament before then.
The Government, which received the report in May, accepted 15 of the review's 20 recommendations but dropped plans to strip religious schools of their right to expel gay, lesbian and transgender students, instead announcing plans to refer the issue -- along with that of LGBTI teachers -- to a review by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which would not be completed until the second half of 2019.
It also proposed to establish religion as a protected attribute in a new Religious Discrimination Act, rendering discrimination on that basis unlawful; create a new statutory position of Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission; amend Human Rights legislation in accord with recommendations of the Ruddock Review; and support efforts by the Australian Human Rights Commission to increase community awareness of the importance of freedom of religion.
In a joint statement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter said: "Australia is a place where discrimination on the basis of a person’s identity — including their religious identity — is unacceptable. It is also a place where we respect the right of religious institutions to maintain their distinctive religious ethos. Our laws should reflect these values."
Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher welcomed the Government's moves to safeguard religious freedoms.
"We used to be ‘live and let live’ on religious matters," he said. "We gave each other space to be different, but lately there has been a hard-edged secularism that wants to stamp out religion from public life."
Archbishop Fisher said it was critical that under proposed legislation, Catholic schools have the right to freely pass on Catholic beliefs and practices to students.
The Review recommended that Federal Parliament should amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to provide that religious schools could discriminate in relation to the employment of staff, and the engagement of contractors, on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status provided that the discrimination was founded in the precepts of the religion; the school had a publicly available policy outlining its position in relation to the matter and explaining how the policy would be enforced; and the school provided a copy of the policy in writing to employees and contractors and prospective employees and contractors.
It recommended that the same apply in relation to students, with prospective students and parents to be provided with a copy in writing at the time of enrolment and existing parents and students to be given written updates of the policy, but also required that "the school has regard to the best interests of the child as the primary consideration in its conduct".