Protection of Religious Freedom in Australia

Since today is Australia Day, it seems like an appropriate occasion to make some comments about freedom of religion in Australia! Those of us who are blessed to live in this wonderful country have many things to be grateful for, and one of them is a tradition of free exercise of religion. However, this right is not protected here in precisely the same way as it is protected in other jurisidictions which share our common law heritage. In this post I want to outline briefly how the law protects freedom of religion in Australia.

One of the key features of the Australia legal system is that we are a Federation, governed by a written Constitution. The Commonwealth Parliament is given certain specific areas in which it can legislate; the States hold the “residual” powers of legislation, although if the Commonwealth has passed a valid law it can over-ride State law on that topic. This Federal division of powers is an important background to considering how religious freedom is protected.

A. Religious Freedom Protection under Commonwealth law

The Commonwealth Constitution contains a clear restriction on Federal law-making powers, designed to protect religious freedom. This is s 116 of the Constitution:

Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion 

  1. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

(Of course s 116 also deals with “establishment” issues, whether the Commonwealth can create or support a religious body, and religious tests. But for today we will focus on the “free exercise” clause.)

The provision is similar to, and was enacted in clear knowledge of, similar words in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. But it has become clear in later interpretation that the High Court of Australia, in the few cases where the provision has been considered, will not automatically follow the US Supreme Court. There are only a half dozen High Court decisions dealing with the free exercise clause of s 116; to my mind the most important, and still the best, of these decisions is the WW2 era decision of Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses Inc v Commonwealth (1943) 67 CLR 116.

Briefly, the issue that arose in that case was one which is still a hot topic today: where do we draw the line between protecting religious freedom, and protecting national security? During World War 2, the theology of the JW’s involved the views that all organised political entities (up to and including the British Empire) were “organs of Satan”, and that it was the duty of all JW’s to not participate in human wars. In addition they would refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the King.

While these views were unpopular even in peacetime, at the height of World War 2, when many Australians were fighting and dying overseas for the British Empire, they were pretty explosive. So much so that under a general regulation-making power given by the National Security Act 1939 (Cth), regulations called the National Security (Subversive Associations) Regulations 1940 had been made, and under those regulations the Governor-General had declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a subversive association, and the Commonwealth had taken over its main meeting centre.

The High Court held  that the regulations were invalid. But interestingly for our purposes, the reason for their invalidity was not that they breached s 116! The court effectively held that they went beyond either the regulation-making power, or else beyond the Constitutional power involved, as being too far-reaching. In particular one of the features that struck the judges concerned was that under the Regulations organisations were prohibited from advocating “unlawful doctrines”, which were defined to include “any doctrine or principle advocated by a declared body”. Since the JW’s were within a tradition that honoured the Bible, their doctrine included such subversive tenets as the Ten Commandments! Overall 3 out of the 5 judges ruled that the regulations were too broad and were, in effect, a disproportionate response to the danger posed by the JW’s.

However, the court did consider the question whether, if the regulations were otherwise valid, they would have been contrary to s 116. I think the best of the judgments on this question was that of Latham CJ, who emphasised the importance of religious freedom, but held that in effect s 116 had to be read as posing the question whether a law amounts to an “undue” infringement of freedom of religion, taking into account other important interests (at 128). Hence a law which impaired religious freedom (as this law clearly did) would still be valid if it was aimed at achieving an important government interest (national security, here), so long as it was not an “undue” infringement of religion taking into account the importance of the interests.

Other judges read s 116 in slightly different ways, and later decisions of the High Court (most of which were comments in passing, rather than directly on this issue) offer a slightly narrower view of s 116. (See e.g. Kruger v Commonwealth (the “Stolen Generations case”) [1997] HCA 27; (1997) 190 CLR 1.) But it seems to me that Latham CJ’s decision captures the real importance of the provision, while recognising that it cannot provide “absolute” protection where other important interests are at stake.

An important point to note about s 116, however, is that it does not apply to laws passed by a State, as opposed to the Commonwealth. The wording of the provision is clearly limited to the Commonwealth (and here in Australia our High Court has not made the step that the US Supreme Court took in Cantwell v Connecticut 310 US 296 (1940) of extending the free exercise limb of the First Amendment to the States.) Indeed, there is some academic and judicial debate as to whether s 116 even extends to Federal Territories, which are set up under authority of Commonwealth laws (although I think that there are strong hints in recent High Court decisions that, should the issue come up today, the High Court would apply s 116 to a Territory law- see Wurridjal v Commonwealth (2009) 237 CLR 309, which extended a similar limitation on general Commonwealth law-making powers to govern Territorial laws.)

B. Protection of religious freedom other than through s 116

How is religious freedom protected in Australia, then, where s 116 does not apply (in particular, under State law?) There are a number of possibilities which have been put forward, which I will briefly note.

(a) Protection under International Conventions?

There are a number of important international treaties which protect religious freedom. Probably the most important one, which Australia has undertaken to be bound by, is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR), s 18 of which provides for a broad right of religious freedom.

But under Australian law international treaties are not “incorporated” into our domestic law automatically; Parliaments need to take a further step and pass implementing laws. Unless the Commonwealth or a State/Territory enacts specific legislation, the most that can be said (and this argument has been run in a couple of cases) is that as a matter of judicial discretion in interpreting ambiguous legislation, the courts should presume that Parliament would intend to comply with international law (see Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs v Teoh (1995) 183 CLR 273.) But so far no statute has been found to be sufficiently unclear in the area of religious freedom for this principle to be applied.

Of course international conventions can provide a model to encourage legislation, and as we will see in a moment there is some local legislation which to some extent specifically adopts the ICCPR. But it cannot be litigated on directly in domestic courts.

(b) Common law protection for religious freedom?

While the common law has a long tradition of protecting freedoms in general, there is not a strong common law religious freedom tradition. In fact, of course, the common law developed in a country (Great Britain) where there was an established church, the Church of England, and at various points in history there were legal disabilities imposed on those from other religions. In Grace Bible Church Inc v Reedman (1984) 36 SASR 376 the South Australian Supreme Court held that there was no implied principle of religious freedom constraining State laws.

On this question the most promising angle is the approach seen in a Federal Court decision, Evans v NSW [2008] FCAFC 130, where the Full Court in ruling on the invalidity of some regulations constraining religious comment during “World Youth Day”, that where legislation was ambiguous it would be interpreted so as to favour the internationally recognised right of religious freedom to the maximum extent possible, referring at para [79] to the fact that “[an] important freedom generally accepted in Australian society is freedom of religious belief and expression”.

(c) Protection under specific charters of rights

As most people are aware, Australia has no general Federal “Charter of Rights” (unlike the US or even, today, the UK where the European Convention on Human Rights has to some extent been incorporated into local law.) But individual jurisdictions have chosen to implement such charters, and both the State of Victoria (Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) s 14) and the Australian Capital Territory (Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) s 14) have enacted general human rights instruments which contain explicit protections for religious freedom.

(d) Discrimination laws and “Balancing provisions”

Freedom of religion is also protected in two different ways under legislation which prohibits unlawful discrimination around Australia. In most jurisdictions (all except NSW and the Commonwealth), one of the grounds of unlawful discrimination is religious belief, so that it would be unlawful to sack someone, or deny them services, on the grounds of their religious belief. Related to this, and also present in the other jurisdictions, are provisions of laws that are designed to “balance” religious freedom with the right not to be discriminated against. So that, for example, while there is a general prohibition on employment decisions being made on the basis of gender, all jurisdictions allow churches or other religious organisations to decide only to appoint male clergy, because that is seen by some religious groups as a key part of their teachings. Agree with these teachings or not, the law takes the view that it reasonably preserves the religious freedom of believers in these groups, and the groups as a whole, to allow their religious freedom to be exercised in this way.

Of course there is a great deal more that could be said about all these areas, but hopefully this will provide a useful overview of religious freedom protection in Australia. On the whole our history has been fairly free from serious religious conflicts, and it is be hoped that we can continue to enjoy the freedom to live in accordance with our fundamental beliefs, while respecting the rights of others.