New Commonwealth Religious Freedom Laws

The Commonwealth Attorney-General has released Exposure Drafts of a package of Federal Bills designed to improve religious freedom protections under Australian law, along with associated explanatory information. The legislation responds to the recommendations of the Ruddock Panel into Religious Freedom, released late in 2018. Public comment has been invited by 2 October, 2019.

The main item is the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (“RDB”), which broadly replicates the existing pattern of anti-discrimination laws enacted by the Commonwealth, but picking up for the first time at the Federal level the “protected characteristics” of “religious belief or activity”. Two ancillary Bills propose consequential amendments to other legislation, add some specific matters to be taken into account in objects clauses for other discrimination laws, and slightly amend or clarify the laws on charities and marriage.

The RDB is a lengthy document (68 clauses over 52 pages), with some complexities that will need to be unpacked. But I would like to offer a brief overview and an initial response, which will be followed up later by more detailed comments about particular issues. I can say, however, that it looks like being a worthwhile and helpful change which in general will further the cause of religious freedom (for both believers and non-believers) in Australia.

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Social work student wins appeal against dismissal for views on sexuality

An important decision of the England and Wales Court of Appeal, The Queen (on the application of Ngole) -v- The University of Sheffield [2019] EWCA Civ 1127 (3 July 2019) has ruled that a social work student, Felix Ngole, should not have been dismissed from his course on the basis of comments he made on social media sharing the Bible’s view on homosexuality. The court says in its summary at para [5], point (10):

The mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds.

The decision is a welcome one, which will hopefully provide guidance in similar situations.

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Voluntary Assisted Dying Proposals in Qld- Guest Blog

I am pleased to be able to post this guest post from Dr Alex Deagon FHEA, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, who had made a Submission to the Queensland Parliamentary Health, Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee on Voluntary Assisted Dying. 

 In short, his opinion (which I support) is that voluntary assisted dying should not be permitted, but if it is, medical practitioners and institutions should be able to hold and exercise conscientious objections.  This issue, of course, relates to “law and religion” because there are deep religious objections to VAD; but it should be noted that the reasons offered by Dr Deagon are not based on a religious world-view, being instead general public policy considerations. The question of conscientious objection, of course, will also be especially relevant to religious medical practitioners, but again there will be many others who object to the procedure on other moral grounds.

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Church liability for clergy child abuse

I am presenting a paper at a Melbourne Law School seminar on “Tort Liability of Churches for Clergy Child Abuse after the Royal Commission: Implications of Developments in the Law of Vicarious Liability and Non-Delegable Duty”, which is now available for those who are interested. The (fairly technical legal) paper reviews common law liability of churches, touches on some of the statutory changes in NSW and Victoria following the Royal Commission, and suggests that the High Court of Australia should refine the law of “non-delegable duty” to allow it to be used in cases involving intentional torts.

Religious Freedom at Australian Universities

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.