The High Court of Australia today, in Comcare v Banerji  HCA 23 (7 August 2019), upheld as “reasonable”, and not unconstitutional, the decision of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to dismiss an employee who had made anonymous political comments about migration matters and government policies, contrary to various codes of conduct. The case provides interesting insights into the operation of the implied constitutional freedom of political communication. Many will see similarities with the dismissal of footballer Israel Folau for comments he shared about the Bible’s view of morality, but as we will see, while somewhat factually similar, the cases raise quite different issues.
In a previous post I commented on the events surrounding celebrity rugby player Israel Folau’s posting on social media of a meme stating that various groups of sinners, including “homosexuals”, were destined for hell unless they repented and put their trust in Jesus Christ. He was immediately threatened with dismissal by his employer, Rugby Australia (“RA”), a threat subsequently implemented through an internal tribunal finding that he was guilty of a high level breach of the RA “code of conduct”.
It seems an appropriate point to comment on recent developments and to clarify what it seems Mr Folau’s legal options are.
I am presenting a paper at the “Religious Freedom After Ruddock” conference being held at the University of Queensland on Saturday April 6. The paper is “Religious Free Speech After Ruddock: Implications for Blasphemy and Religious Vilification Laws”. A copy is available here:
The paper is fairly long but it deals with a number of important issues on religious free speech, and I think it has become even more relevant following the terrible events in Christchurch and calls for increased regulation of “hate speech”. I suggest that there is a role for this, but we need to be very careful to define what we mean by this phrase and not open it up too broadly by restricting legitimate debate on important issues.
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.
The long-awaited Religious Freedom Review: Report of the Expert Panel (chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock) has now been released publicly, along with the formal Government Response. After the prior leaking of its 20 recommendations there were no major surprises as to the final conclusion, but there is much interesting background to the recommendations (and in one or two cases the full Report seems to have a significant impact on how one should read the language of the recommendations.) It is also important to see the announced intentions of the LNP Government as to how they will respond.
In this first post in response to the full Report I will comment mainly on recommendations 1 & 5-8 and recommendation 15, with the other recommendations to be left for part 2 or later.
The Religious Freedom Review Panel, chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, has invited submissions from all Australians on the protection of religious freedom in Australia. Submissions are being accepted until 14 February 2018. I attach a copy of my submission here: Submission on Religious Freedom Protection for RF Review Expert Panel (with permission of the Review Panel), and one of its attachments: Foster Attachment 1- Religious Freedom in Australia overview 2017. (There is a second attachment which I will release later, as it is a copy of a paper I am presenting at a conference in a couple of weeks.) Those who are interested in the area may find it helpful to see the sort of topics that I think ought to be addressed.
Australia is in the middle of a debate as to the extent to which religious freedom rights should be accommodated in legislation introducing “same sex marriage” (SSM). Those who object to this idea tell us that:
Christian conservatives – following the lead of their counterparts in the United States – seek to use freedom of religion to justify discrimination against members of the LGBTQI community. This agenda is now being pursued under the guise of the debate for a marriage equality bill. (“After the yes vote, let’s not remove one inequality and replace it with another”The Guardian online, 22 Nov 2017)
The word “discrimination” is a notoriously slippery one, and I would like to challenge the view that recognising religion freedom in changing marriage laws amounts to unjustified discrimination.
The Northern Territory government has released a discussion paper called Modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act (Sept 2017). It invites comments by 3 December 2017. You can almost get the tone of the paper from the title! After all, who in this fast-changing age could oppose anything called “modernisation”? But there are a number of concerning recommendations and comments made from the law and religion perspective, and there are some real doubts whether the proposals properly reflect religious freedom principles.
My colleague Dr Alex Deagon from QUT has graciously provided a guest blog post in which he outlines his comments on two major concerns with the proposals to amend the Act. Those who are interested in the interaction of discrimination law and religious freedom should find them very helpful, and may wish to make their own comments in response to the discussion paper. There are other controversial proposals in the paper which may be the subject of future posts.
Australia is involved in a debate about whether same sex marriage should be introduced. The question is being put to the electors in the form of a voluntary postal survey, the question in which is simply: “Should the law be changed to allow same sex couples to marry?”
The original intention of the current Government had been to put this question to the people of Australia in a compulsory plebiscite. This option being defeated twice in Parliament, the postal survey has been designed to be run without explicit authorising legislation. However, once it was decided that the survey would proceed, concerns were expressed that the debate might contain misleading and deceptive advertising, which would usually have been dealt with under the electoral laws (but since the survey was not being run under those laws, no such protections applied for the survey.) In addition, concerns were expressed about hateful and harmful speech on both side of the debate.
In response to these concerns, the Commonwealth Parliament today (in a rare example of swift bipartisan action) saw the introduction and enactment of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017 (which has now received the Royal Assent, and become Act No 96 of 2017). The Act will come into operation on Thursday 14 September, 2017 (tomorrow, as I write.)
I am presenting a paper on this topic at the Freedom for Faith “Freedom17” conference in Canberra on Wednesday June 14. The paper is available here: Protecting Religious Freedom in Australia Through Legislative Balancing Clauses. It aims to review all the relevant clauses in discrimination laws in Australia (Commonwealth, State and Territories) which balance religious freedom with the right not to be discriminated against. (If I have missed any, please feel free to let me know!) It also reviews the relevant balancing clauses which were proposed in the Exposure Draft Bill released by the Federal Government last year as an example of how same sex marriage might be recognised. Finally, it explores circumstances in which some of the State and Territory discrimination laws might be invalid, where they provide narrower religious freedom protection than the Commonwealth law does.