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.
The right to religious freedom may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals 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.
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 the state and local levels.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In September a Melbourne court ruled that a Christian school that accepted half of its pupils from non-Christian families could not reasonably exclude a five-year-old Sikh boy from attending classes on account of his parents’ belief that he should wear a turban. The court said the parents and school were free to negotiate appropriate new agreements to the school’s uniform code, possibly including and not limited to colors of all clothing worn, but that the boy’s turban worn for religious reasons could not be excluded.
The One Nation Party had four senators in the federal parliament and maintained a platform calling for ceasing Muslim immigration and admission of Muslim refugees, banning the burqa and niqab in public places, installing surveillance cameras in all mosques, and prohibiting members of parliament from being sworn in under the Quran. In August One Nation Party leader and federal Senator Pauline Hanson wore a burqa in the senate chamber and called on the government “to ban the burqa.” Attorney General George Brandis immediately rejected the call and called Hanson’s action a “stunt.”
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 Australian Greens and other groups continued to call for the practice to end.
In September three men from the United Patriots group were convicted of inciting contempt and ridicule of Muslims following a 2015 event protesting the construction of a mosque in Bendigo, located 90 miles from Melbourne. They were each fined $2,000 Australian dollars ($1,600). Construction on the mosque began in August.
The Victorian State Government Multicultural Commission published a report in December 2016 on the debate over construction of the mosque in Bendigo. The study concluded that the Bendigo Muslim community faced abuse. Muslim children reported being bullied at school, and women wearing the hijab said they were shouted at by people passing by in their cars. The commission said it hoped the findings of the report could help other regional cities better engage their Muslim communities.
In New South Wales (NSW), a Muslim organization called the Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir said Muslim men were permitted to strike a disobedient wife as long as it was soft and “symbolic.” The women faced backlash for their video post from the NSW police commissioner and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who said, “If you want to beat up your wife, you can’t become a citizen of this nation.”
The government continued to provide funding for security installations –lighting, fencing, closed-circuit television cameras, and others – 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.
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.
Former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott expressed concern that the proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage provided inadequate protection of religious freedom. The attorney general said current law provided adequate protections for religious freedom. Parliament passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage on December 7.
A multiparty group of legislators in Victoria did not allow a vote on legislation introduced in 2016 that would protect LGBTI students, employees, and job seekers at faith-based schools.