This is just a brief update on where we are following the delivery of the Ruddock Report last year and the debates about amending the law on religious schools and sex discrimination.
The short version is that there seems to be no news for the moment. Following the report of the Senate committee inquiry into Senator Wong’s bill on 14 February, in which the majority of the committee recommended that the bill be not progressed at the moment, there was no debate on the bill in the last two weeks of Parliament in February. The next time Parliament sits will be for debate on the Federal budget, and whatever other issues have arisen leading up to a probable Federal election in May. It is always hard to predict, but it seems unlikely that the bill will be debated at that stage, so it will probably be one of those matters that will depend on who wins the election.
The Government did previously indicate that it was going to refer the matters raised in the bill to the Australian Law Reform Commission; that will presumably happen in due course but so far there is no indication of the precise terms of reference or when there might be a report.
Finally for the moment, for those interested in the range of legal issues raised by the Ruddock Report, the University of Queensland Law School, in partnership with the Australian Law Journal, is sponsoring an academic conference “Religious Freedom After Ruddock” (Sat 6 April, at UQ). Registration is available here. It looks like being an interesting day, and I will be presenting a paper on questions of “blasphemy” and free speech following the recommendation of the Report.
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.
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 Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has now (Feb 14, 2019) tabled its Report on the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018, a Private Senator’s Bill introduced last year by Senator Wong with the support of the ALP. (The background to the Bill can be found in previous posts on this blog, starting here, the most recent of which was here.) The recommendation of the majority is that the Bill not be approved, and instead that the Bill and related issues “be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission for full and proper consideration” (para 3.86).
The recent decision of the NSW Court of Appeal in Ulman v Live Group Pty Ltd  NSWCA 338 (20 December 2018) raises important issues about the interaction between internal disputes within a religious community, and the “secular” court system. In this case a majority held that the threat of purely religious sanctions, to be applied if a dispute was resolved in the ordinary courts rather than in a religious tribunal, amounted to contempt of court, and imposed financial penalties on members of the tribunal. Significant questions are raised as to whether religious groups are able to apply their own religious beliefs in disciplining members of their community, or whether these decisions will be over-ridden by the ordinary court system.
I am pleased to provide today a second response to the Ruddock Report, by way of a “guest” spot from my friend and colleague Dr Alex Deagon, FHEA, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology.
In my former posts (here and here), O Friend of Law and Religion, I have dealt with all that the Ruddock Report covered in recommendations 1-12 and 15, along with the official Government Response to those recommendations. In this post I aim to cover recommendations 13-14 and 16-20. These deal with important issues of the law of blasphemy and religious free speech, along with State discrimination laws, collection of data, education on religious freedom, the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission, and the exercise of leadership in the area by the Commonwealth.