The Uniting Church in Australia, it has recently been noted, is the only major church to officially support a Human Rights Act. This is true but there is more diversity among the Christian community than is often recognised. While the voices of religious leaders and organisations opposed to a Human Rights Act are often heard loud and clear, a quick look at the submissions to the National Human Rights Consultation chaired by Father Frank Brennan, reveals many other church groups which are supportive or are reserving their opinion. For example, the submission of the General Synod of the Anglican Church expressed its support for Human Rights legislation, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference declined to take a position and the Quaker submission was supportive. Many church-based service agencies were also supportive of the need for better human rights protections.
The Uniting Church supports a Human Rights Act as an important legislative tool in ensuring equality for all Australians. We are concerned with the protection of the basic human rights and freedoms of everyone, not only those which relate to our own life as a church.
Australia has a generally good record on human rights compared with other countries but too many people still fall through the cracks. A Human Rights Act is a safety net which will help those who have fallen through the significant holes in our current array of laws and government practice. It will help us to uphold people’s dignity, a common value across all religions, and it will help to identify when public policy is dividing us, as it sometimes does, into those who are “worthy” and those who are less than worthy.
The Uniting Church is not afraid of the consequences of a Human Rights Act for its own life - it is privileged enough to be able to negotiate for itself what matters to its future wellbeing. The Church’s concerns in matters of human rights are squarely with those who are not so privileged - those whose rights are most often trampled by public policy that doesn’t hear their needs and which is too often implemented by bureaucracies that don’t understand their circumstances - Indigenous Australians, those who live in poverty, people with physical disabilities and mental illness, carers struggling to provide for their families as they maintain their own health, the long-term unemployed, the elderly and frail, and people who live in society’s institutions.
In their opposition to a federal Human Rights Act, other churches have reflected on recent events in Victoria as evidence that human rights legislation erodes freedom of religion and the rights of religious organisations. Indeed, the Uniting Church in Australia has also been concerned about the recent Victorian legislation relating to abortion which we believe has undermined the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
We believe, however, that the Victorian experience is a lesson in the value of a well-drafted Human Rights Act. We are confident that had the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibility not specifically exempted all matters relating to abortion (an exemption which was championed by some religious groups at the time of the Charter’s drafting) the Charter would have prevented such legislation being passed. A federal Human Rights Act, properly drafted, would provide greater protection of the right to freedom of religion in Commonwealth legislation, where no such right is currently protected.
It is also not the case that a Human Rights Act will apply to all religious organisations in all of their activities. A Human Rights Act, implemented in the form recommended in the National Human Rights Consultation report, will only require that “public authorities” comply with the human rights listed in the Act. Public authorities are primarily government departments and public servants, but also include private organisations that are carrying out a service on behalf of the Government. In relation to religious organisations, this may include the delivery of health services for the Government, for example, but will not relate to many of their other activities internal to their life as a religious community.
The Church acknowledges that it has played a role in the abuse of human rights. In 2006, the National Assembly of the Uniting Church adopted its statement on human rights Dignity in Humanity: Recognising Christ in Every Person. In this statement, the Church confesses that throughout its history it has perpetrated violence and abused human rights through action, inaction, complicity and collusion. We are committed, however, to working for justice and better human rights protection as we continue to reflect on our actions.
There is no doubt that most of us can say that Australia has done well in protecting and upholding human rights but it is entirely reasonable to be committed to doing better. Should the Rudd Government commit to implementing the recommendations of the Brennan Report for a Human Rights Act, and I hope that they will, the Uniting Church will be advocating for strong recognition of and protections for religious freedom. But most of all, it will be seeking the best possible protections for those all too often trampled by public policy that does not heed their needs or understand their circumstances.
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