The proposed Freedom of Religion Bill is unnecessary and divisive. Firstly, as the Ruddock Report points out, religious freedom is broadly protected through general anti-discrimination law, and protection of beliefs are best addressed through exemptions, which should not privilege religious beliefs above others.
The word religion and religious appear multiple times throughout the Bill, despite the fact that 'religion' is not even defined in the Bill, and the definitions of 'religious belief' and 'religious practice' are defined as both holding or not holding a religious belief, or engaging or not engaging in a lawful religious activity. What does this mean? Does the Bill apply then to no-one and everyone? A raft of qualifications, and the language of the Bill indicates it does not. There is protection for religious belief, but no further mention of non-religious belief. The emphasis on religion skews perception of the proposed legislation, and shows the absurdity of purporting to treat all beliefs equally, while appeasing religionists by insisting on tying the law to 'religion'.
Confusion and complexity abound in the proposed Bill. The multiple use of the words 'religion' and 'religious' give religion privileged reference in the legislation, and primacy is given to the religion over civil law. Non-religious belief is a reluctantly conceded (and little understood) afterthought but the Bill is based providing religion with special consideration.
Freedom to hold and express a religious approach to living is indeed an essential human right. However, this right is prescribed equally with, and no differently from, freedom to adopt any non-religious approach.
Australia is a party to both the founding statement on human rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has thus undertaken to honour them. Article 18 of both treaties sets out rights relating to liberties surrounding 'thought', 'conscience', 'religion' and 'belief'. The UN Human Rights Committee has declared 'Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms "belief" and "religion" are to be broadly construed.' These rights are absolute, and all beliefs are to be treated equally. There is no reference to the right to religious as superior to any other belief.
The freedom to practice one's religion or beliefs is not absolute, however, but may be limited as prescribed by law and necessary to 'protect public safety, order, health, or morals (publicly accepted moral and ethical standards) or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.'
Long and tortuous definitions and qualifications will lead to confusion and frequent recourse to the law, where courts will be required to determine questions of 'reasonability' in terms of religious doctrine and practice. Complexity will generate social division. Bill's apparent intent to prioritize religion, as the title indicates, makes this law a 'sword' rather than a 'shield'.