An extraordinary claim before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal recently, Secular Party of Australia Inc. v the Department of Education and Training (Human Rights)  VCAT 1321 (27 August 2018), alleged that a child at a public school should be prevented from wearing Islamic religious garb in the child’s own interests! Thankfully the claim failed, but the fact that the case could even be argued illustrates the pressure that some groups on society are placing on parents and children of faith.
A religious group has claimed that “religious freedom rights” allow it to ignore Australian laws governing land-clearing and other provisions regulating land development. The claim is clearly wrong. It is important to spell out why, so this false claim does not affect other, justifiable, arguments that can be made about appropriate protection of religious freedom.
Trinity Western University, an evangelical tertiary institution in British Columbia, has lost two cases it had brought protesting the decision of two Canadian Provincial Law Societies to not authorise graduates of their proposed Law School as able to practice in the Provinces. The reason for the denial of accreditation was that TWU requires students and staff to agree to a Community Covenant Agreement, which undertakes (among other things) that they will not engage while studying or working at TWU in “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”. The Supreme Court of Canada, in two linked cases, has now held by a 7-2 majority that the Law Societies were justified in their refusal to accredit the TWU Law program, on the basis that any interference with religious freedom was minor, and that the Societies were entitled to take the view that the Covenant requirement imposed “harm” on LGBTQ law students. I disagree with both those conclusions, and believe that the dissenting judgment of Côté and Brown JJ is a far better analysis of the situation.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U. S. ____ (2018) (June 4, 2018), the US Supreme Court by 7-2 overturned previous decisions against a Christian cake maker, Jack Phillips, who had declined to make a wedding cake for a same sex wedding. While the basis of the decision of the majority is fairly narrow, the outcome is clearly correct, and even in the narrow reasons offered by Justice Kennedy, there are a number of important affirmations which support religious freedom.
Yesterday saw the launch in Canberra of the first report by a body called the “Study of the Economic Impact of Religion on Society” (SEIROS), looking into the general impact of religious belief on the Australian community. The report, prepared by respected economic modellers at Deloitte based on a commissioned survey designed by researchers for SEIROS, can be downloaded here: Donating and volunteering behaviour associated with religiosity.
Today the Rev the Hon Fred Nile, for the Christian Democrat Party, introduced a Bill to add “religious beliefs or religious activities” into NSW legislation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms) Bill 2018 will add new Parts 3B and 5A into the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) (“ADA”), making it unlawful in various areas to discriminate on the grounds of religion, or to subject religious bodies to a detriment. The proposals will also make it unlawful to penalise someone for holding views on marriage as the union of a man or a woman, or for holding the view that there are only two genders.
Should a Muslim woman who wears a face covering for religious reasons, be entitled to give evidence in court with her face covered? This important issue, which has been discussed in other common law jurisdictions, has now been considered in the NSW Court of Appeal, in Elzahed v State of New South Wales  NSWCA 103 (18 May 2018). The Court concluded that no error had been shown in a ruling by a trial judge, that Ms Elzahad was not entitled to keep her face covered while testifying.