The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office.
There are certain legal limitations on the right to religious freedom, including the necessity of protecting public safety, order, and health, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination have recourse under federal discrimination laws or through the court system and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion; however, seven of the eight states and territories have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s religion or ethnoreligious background. South Australia is the only state or territory that does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. All other states and territories have independent agencies to mediate allegations of religious discrimination. In August the parliament of the Australian Capital Territory passed legislation making it a crime to vilify someone based on his or her religion.
Religious groups are not required to register. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australia Tax Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO checks. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors taken into account when determining its tax-exempt status.
The government permits religious education in public schools, generally taught by volunteers using approved curricula; parents may decide whether their children will attend or not. There is no national standard for approving religious curricula, which happens at state and local levels. Public schools in New South Wales provide secular ethics classes as an alternative for students who do not attend optional scripture classes.
In January the Victoria state government removed religious instruction from the public school curriculum. Students in Victoria can attend religious classes on school grounds for a maximum of 30 minutes per week, but only during lunchtime or in the hours before or after school.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Four senators from the One Nation Party were elected during the July federal elections on a platform which included ceasing Muslim immigration, holding a royal commission on Islam, halting construction of mosques, installing surveillance cameras in mosques, banning wearing of the burqa and niqab in public places, and prohibiting members of parliament from being sworn in under the Quran. In her first senate speech, One Nation Party Leader Pauline Hanson said the country was “in danger of being swamped by Muslims.” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull disagreed with her views and said “my commitment is to an inclusive multicultural society which is based on mutual respect. The more we respect each other the more secure we become.”
In August an anti-Muslim rally was held in the Melbourne suburb of Melton. Approximately 150 members of nationalist groups attended the rally to oppose the construction of a 75-lot housing development that protestors said was a “Muslim housing estate.” Fifty police officers were present to maintain order and warn against illegal hate speech. The rally was criticized by Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who stated such actions were taking the country “down the wrong path and the wrong direction.”
The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer and then the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional. The Green Party and other groups called for the practice to end.
In June the federal High Court rejected a request to hear an appeal against the construction of a mosque in Bendigo. The Australian Muslims of Bendigo issued the statement: “we believe the decision is in line with every Australian’s constitutional right to practice their faith.” Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews welcomed the High Court’s decision. In 2015, local residents opposed decisions providing for the construction of the mosque, reportedly for zoning reasons. Others reportedly opposed the construction of mosques in general.
In April the local council blocked approval for the building of a mosque in southeast Melbourne amid opposition from nationalist groups and local residents. The local government said the mosque should not be built due to its size and because it would not fit in with the local landscape, but critics said the decision represented community and nationalist backlash against Muslims.
In November Orthodox Jews in the northern Sydney suburb of St. Ives won approval to retain an eruv, “a wire cable attached to power poles which extends the private dwelling [in terms of religious practice] to an area encompassing a few blocks or more, giving Orthodox Jews freedom to participate in community activities on the Sabbath.” Several Christians spoke up in defense of the eruv, stating “there is no place for exclusion, discrimination, or anti-Semitism.”
In June the state government of Queensland conducted a review of religious education in state public schools after suspending the long standing Connect curriculum at Windsor State School. The three-year religious education program was said to “solicit” students to become Christians. State Education Minister Kate Jones said the lesson materials “go beyond imparting knowledge of Biblical references, and extend to soliciting children to develop a personal faith in God and Jesus to become a Christian.”
Public and private schools in New South Wales worked to implement the state government’s A$47 million ($34 million) School Communities Working Together program, released in 2015, to help at-risk schools counter “antisocial and extremist behavior.” It included training to assist school staff identify vulnerable young people; specialist support teams; and a telephone hotline for teachers to report such incidents.
The government continued to provide funding for security installations – such as lighting, fencing, and closed-circuit television cameras – and for the cost of employing security guards, in order to protect schools and preschools facing a risk of attack, harassment, or violence stemming from racial or religious intolerance. This funding was available at both government and nongovernment schools, including religious schools.
In Victoria, the parliament was considering an amendment to equal opportunity legislation that would bar faith-based schools and organizations from discriminating against someone because of religious beliefs or activities, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, or gender identity. Some religious organizations stated they feared the amendment would prevent them from considering adherence to the organization’s religious beliefs when selecting employees.
In May the University of Sydney student union withdrew its threat to deregister a religious organization after Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim groups joined together to advocate for amending the union’s regulations to allow declarations based on faith as a condition of membership and leadership of faith-based groups on campus.
In June Prime Minister Turnbull became the first sitting prime minister to host an iftar and stated “the Australian Muslim community is valued and respected – and it is not confined to a narrow security prism – you are an integral part of an Australian family that rests on the essential foundation of mutual respect and understanding.”
The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, The People of Australia, was based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion and included religious tolerance as a component. The government provided a range of youth-focused early intervention, outreach, and education programs to promote religious tolerance as well as “deradicalization” programs for prison inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses.