The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing 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 curricula approved in accordance with government criteria in each state; parents may decide whether or not their children will attend. 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 Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for new religious freedom laws to “safeguard personal liberty.” Legislation was not introduced but caused a debate within the country. The prime minister said he planned draft legislation for early next year. According to a December 12 article in The Australian newspaper, elements of the planned legislation included taking steps to protect religious schools, charities, and individuals from discrimination; requiring education departments to make clear to parents how to remove a child from religious instruction at school; and moving to abolish statutory or common law offenses of blasphemy in all jurisdictions. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney said that there had been attempts to penalize those who support traditional marriage and that legislation was necessary, among other things, because “lately there has been a hard-edged secularism that wants to stamp out religion from public life.”
In October the prime minister stated the country would ban religious schools from expelling lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) students. The opposition leader gave support to the plan and also proposed that religious schools lose the right to fire gay staff. A group of Anglican schools wrote to members of parliament saying changes in the exemption to the country’s antidiscrimination law that currently allows religious schools not to have LGBT teachers would undermine their faith’s core values and that “until such time as religious freedom is codified in legislation, the exemptions should remain.” Legislation was not introduced by the end of the year, and parliament referred the issue to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review.
The One Nation Party had two senators in the federal parliament and maintained a platform calling for stopping 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. Katter’s Australia Party had one senator and one member in the House of Representatives who maintained a platform calling for a country based on Christian values and for a ban on Muslim immigration.
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 July the Catholic Church rejected the 2017 recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that priests be required to report evidence of pedophilia heard in the confessional or face prosecution. Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the Church was committed to both child safety and the seal of the sacrament of confessional. The Church accepted a commission recommendation that it compensate each victim of child abuse by Church personnel up to 150,000 Australian dollars ($106,000).
In December Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of five charges of “historical child sexual offenses” by a Melbourne court. Pell maintained his innocence. He faced an additional trial for alleged similar actions in Ballarat.
The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 172 complaints on the grounds of religion (approximately 2.4 percent of total discrimination complaints) in the last three years.
In July a judge in the Victoria Supreme Court refused to allow a woman to wear a niqab in the court’s public spectator gallery during her husband’s trial on terrorism. The judge offered the woman the option of viewing the proceedings live from another place in the building.
The government continued to provide funding for security installations – such as lighting, fencing, 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.
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, continued to be 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. Effectiveness of the programs was a point of debate throughout the country.