In an important decision on religion and free speech in NSW, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal has ruled today in Ekermawi v Nine Network Australia Pty Limited  NSWCATAD 29 (15 Feb 2019) that it is not a breach of the law in NSW to make offensive comments about a religion. However, the case involved some difficult issues of law, and while the outcome seems correct, it may foreshadow a restrictive approach to free speech in other cases in the future.
A popular wedding magazine called “White” has announced today that it is closing down. The reason? The Christian publishers had been asked to carry articles featuring same sex weddings, and had politely declined to do so. The backlash on social media led to a number of advertisers withdrawing their custom, and some customers refusing to buy the magazine any more. In this post I want to comment on the legal issues around this incident, and another episode highlighted in the press today.
The UK Supreme Court has now ruled that the Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland was not guilty of sexual orientation discrimination by politely declining to bake a cake decorated with a message in support of same sex marriage- see Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd  UKSC 49 (10 Oct 2018). This is an important decision illustrating the clear difference between a decision based on someone’s personal characteristics, and a refusal to support a specific message.
I presented a paper today (linked here) to a seminar at the University where I work, on the topic of “Religious Freedom at Australian Universities”. It explores some of the challenges facing staff and students in this area, and explores some of the ways that religious freedom is currently protected (and where there are gaps in that protection.) I use examples from the policies framed in my local context, but similar policies and legislation would be relevant at most Australian Universities. Others involved in this area may find the paper helpful in outlining issues and options.
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.
In a Federation like Australia, different jurisdictions (States and Territories) may have different rules on what amounts to “discrimination” or “vilification”, and how those things interact with religious freedom. One of the pressing issues here in recent years has been whether there will be a “race to the bottom” in freedom of speech on religious issues, with one jurisdiction in particular, Tasmania, raising deep concerns with a very broad prohibition on causing “offence” related to matters such as sexual orientation.
Today the High Court of Australia, on appeal from NSW, has affirmed the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal that State and Territory “tribunals” (non-judicial panels usually used in discrimination issues) have no jurisdiction to impose penalties on residents of other Australian jurisdictions under their own local laws. The important decision in Burns v Corbett  HCA 15 (18 April 2018) (court-prepared summary available here) is a good outcome, and at the very least will force Australian jurisdictions to consider very carefully whether they want their local law to apply in other parts of the country. If they do, they will be required to give jurisdiction in those cases to their courts, rather than to lower tribunals.
A recent decision by a California Superior Court Judge holds that a bakery cannot be required by discrimination law to make a same sex wedding cake, where the owner has a religious reason for declining to do so. In Department of Fair Employment and Housing v Cathy’s Creations Inc (Cal Sup Ct, Kern Cty; BCV-17-102855; Lampe J, 5 Feb 2018) Judge Lampe refused an injunction against Cathy Miller, proprietor of Tastries Bakery, which would have required her to create a wedding cake for the same sex wedding of Mireya and Eileen Rodriguez-Del Rio. The basis for the decision was the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the judge holding that creating a wedding cake was a constitutionally protected form of “free speech”.