Buddhism beliefs

The Great Divide Where Religious Beliefs and the Law Meet

In an increasingly secular nation, religion still plays a vital role in how we run our country. In this series, we examine the role of religion in Australian politics and education.


Australia is a multi-faith society. The 2016 census shows that although the mix of beliefs has changed over the years, Australia is still a fairly religious place.

In the last census, almost 70% of Australians identified themselves as religious. The number of Australians who have self-identified as a Christian in the census fell from 88.2% in 1966 to 52.1% in 2016.

The number of Australians identifying as belonging to another religion increased from 0.8% to 8.2%, Islam (2.6%), Buddhism (2.4%) and Hinduism ( 1.9%) being the main non-Christian religions.

The number of people who identified themselves in the “no religion” category increased from 0.8% to 30.1%. This category includes secular beliefs, other spiritual beliefs, or no religion. So it’s hard to be sure what these Australians believe.

Indigenous cultural beliefs were ignored

Australian history shows the benefits of accommodating different beliefs. We have done this very badly with our indigenous peoples. Their high rates of incarceration, poor education and poor health undoubtedly reflect this failure.

Even contemporary calls for marriage equality ignore the lack of recognition of any Indigenous cultural marriage under the marriage law.

The bad start continued with governors, from Arthur Phillip, pledge of Allegiance to “the Protestant succession” and expressly repudiating “the Roman beliefs in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist”.

As a Protestant/Catholic sectarianism that plagued Australian history in the 1970s shows us, it can take time for people with different beliefs to learn how to live well with each other. Small groups tend to be treated with suspicion, even hostility, until they are better understood and excel on the battlefields, in sports, politics, and business. This is Australia’s story.

We can be proud of the progress made and some of the steps taken in contemporary Australia to help people work and live with their religious faith in particular circumstances. Think about:

  • NRL team Canterbury-Bankstown’s work contract with Will Hopoate which allowed him not to play rugby league on Sundays to accommodate his faith. He has now decided that he will play on sundaywhat is his choice to make;

  • the Australian Cricket Board and advertisers agree that Usman Khawaja, an Islamic cricketer, does not need to wear alcohol advertisements;

  • the freedom of conscience that politicians, when dealing with issues such as abortion and euthanasia (and for at least one more year when it comes to marriage), are granted to the Labor Party and the Liberal Party – theoretically, at least – on all issues;

  • the exemption provided by electoral laws for people whose beliefs prevent them from voting on certain days or not at all;

  • exemptions for religious organizations from discrimination laws enable them to operate schools and ordain clergy in accordance with their own doctrines; and

  • the contents of religious denominations being protected from disclosure in court by Commonwealth law and by the laws of most states and territories in order to protect the confidentiality of the confessing believer.

More by common sense than by law

All of these show good ways to welcome faith, but they also show piecemeal protection of religious freedom. To the extent that we enjoy religious freedom, it is more by the common sense of ordinary Australians than by law.

While Australia has committed to a number of international instruments recognizing the importance of freedom of religionthere is no general Commonwealth legislation against religious discrimination.

There are Commonwealth laws prohibiting discrimination in a range of areas such as age, race, gender and sexual identity, but not religion.

As a result, freedom of conscience and belief is not treated with the prominence that our history and international law demands and state and territory laws routinely trump religious freedom.

When Justice is Called to Intervene

Australian parliaments routinely pass laws without sufficient protections for religious freedom. It is common for Australian courts and human rights officials, when faced with the choice between protecting religious freedom and any other claim, to refuse to protect religious freedom.

For example, Archbishop Porteous of Hobart was the subject of a anti-discrimination complaint for distributing a pamphlet explaining traditional Catholic teaching on marriage. Although ultimately dropped, the lawsuit was not initially dismissed as trivial or lacking in merit.

And Christian Youth Camps (CYC), owned by the Christian Brothers, was successfully continued for discrimination in Victoria for politely refusing a booking of his campsite by an organization for young gays and lesbians in rural areas.

The CYC refused the reservation because it did not want its premises to be used to promote among young people a vision of sexual morality in contradiction with the faith of the Christian Brothers.

In 2013, a pro-life Victorian Catholic doctor was investigated and disciplined for refusing to refer a patient seeking sex-selective abortion under a law Victorian law requiring physicians with a conscientious objection to abortion to provide a reference to a physician known not to share their objection. Similar laws apply in the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

And three Christians were successfully continued in Tasmania for protesting too close to an abortion clinic.

In this state, the ACT, Northern Territory and Victoria – with other states considering similar laws – prayer, counsel and protest (whether silent, respectful or caring) are not permitted in designated areas around abortion clinics.

Religion is not going away. Our laws can do a better job of accommodating believers. Our story demands no less.


Read the other articles in the series here.