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Religious freedom: what’s all the fuss?

By Tom Calma - posted Thursday, 16 April 2009

Posing questions about the assumptions held by those in dominant social, cultural, economic or political groups in society will always be challenging.

One of the well-known stories about the life of Christ is that he drove the money changers out of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, quoting the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations … But you have made it a den of thieves”. Of course, this has been explained in many ways, but a common interpretation is that this is a narrative about a challenge to those profiting from an existing franchise, upsetting established power-relations, and advocating a moral basis for these challenges - for which, of course, Christ was eventually crucified.

Indeed, many of the founders of the world’s great religions have been “radical”. They challenged the powerful with the elegance of their principles, charisma and vision. Similarly, human rights often seems a radical agenda because human rights - also - are about fairness, decency, equity and justice. To achieve such aspirations, human rights advocates may confront those who are reluctant to share or negotiate power.


Resistance to research into religious freedom has been a surprising response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Discussion Paper launched last September, Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century. Launch of the Discussion Paper marked the beginning of formal consultations with the Australian community about this issue. Resistance to the project has also been surprising because all of those involved in this process have been open to new ideas, open to hearing the issues of all groups (religious and non-religious), and have no “hidden agendas”.

A recent article in On Line Opinion by Rev Rod Benson (March 24, 2009) is indicative of some recent public attempts by some groups to question the value of this project.

I would therefore like to put on the public record, my concerns about such attempts.

First, the language used in the March 24 article might be construed as implying that the project has some preconceived ideas. For example, in the third paragraph under the sub-title “Background to the review” the article refers to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 1998 review and says that our current review “... goes well beyond the concern (my emphasis) raised in 1998 … (and) the review’s online submission template expands these concerns even further.”

The discussion paper does not state that the Commission has any “concerns” about religion and the normal conduct of religious affairs in Australia. While the word “concerns” has been used to mean “issues”, to conflate this meaning to imply that the Commission is “concerned” about the state of religious freedom in Australia is misleading. Concerns would only arise should any group (and that includes conservative Christian groups and Humanists alike) have their freedoms to practice religion and hold their beliefs curtailed in any way.

The article in question then goes on to state that I claimed that religion and human rights are like oil and water; that they do not naturally mix. This is disingenuous. In the transcript of my speech, and the media release issued on the day, the all important question mark was included after the metaphor. This was clearly intended to denote that it is a question - the subject of a public discussion - not an opinion. As I stated in my speech (which can be read in full here) and which, I think, captures the honest spirit of enquiry in which this work is being undertaken:


I (have) noted … that while religion and human rights are compatible, and religious leaders have often been great champions of human rights, this is not always the case.

Just as the enlightened and liberal-minded of both religious and secular beliefs embrace human rights and democratic values, the unenlightened and reactionary secularist or religious fanatic share their hatreds of the same principles and systems….

One of the things that laws and ethics have in common - not to mention religion! - are that they are endlessly debatable, open to interpretation, and often contradictory … in launching this discussion paper, I can say that I’m sure, even after two years of planning, research, consultation and reporting, our eventual comprehensive report on these issues will not give you many, if any, definitive answers …

What I do hope we will have, however, is the most comprehensive analysis of religion, belief and human rights ever undertaken in Australia …

Discussion and enquiry are fundamental to democracies, to intellectual freedom, to creativity, to culture and to human rights.

The very process of national consultation and open discourse about freedom of religion and belief and human rights will be significant for Australia.

If, along the way, we can find consensus between some groups and strengthen civil society, that will be an achievement in itself.

Criticisms levelled at this project allude to a conspiracy at work whereby this project, and by default, the Australian Human Rights Commission, has decided that “the deradicalisation of Muslim fundamentalists” is to be achieved by liberalising Christian conservatives. The project’s “quiet birth in late 2007” clearly illustrates part of this conspiracy.

The project’s “noisy” birth was announced by the Hon Philip Ruddock MP, Attorney-General under the Howard government, in June 2007 at a national inter-faith gathering convened by the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO) and attended, inter alia, by representatives of the National Council of Churches in Australia, and Archbishop George Pell.

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About the Author

Mr Tom Calma is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner.

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