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Speech: Freedom from Religion

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 24 Nov 2015

Lee recently launched a book called Freedom From Religion in a Canberra bookshop. The author, Ms Wallace, argues that freedom from religion or belief is the real premise of article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom from suppression or imposition of religious or non-religious doctrines by the state or anyone else.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:53):

Last week I had the pleasure of launching a book, Freedom From Religion, at the Paperchain bookshop in Canberra. I believe it is a very important publication, and I recommend it to everyone. This book concerns article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is in no way a dry book. It might sound that way when you mention an article, but it goes to the heart of many issues that we are grappling with-our values, our beliefs, our acceptance of others-and how this important treaty, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, impacts on our lives and shapes our society.

Article 18 establishes the rights of all individuals to adopt personal moral values, whether religious or otherwise, and the right to practise, observe and teach the tenets of that belief. It was a very significant document, particularly when it was first adopted, immediately after the Second World War. It has now been adopted by 195 member states of the United Nations. In fact, the provisions of article 18 are repeated in many international treaties.

Ms Meg Wallace, who has written this book, addresses specifically the response of governments to article 18 and its interpretation and oversight by the United Nations and the European Council. She proposes that perhaps, with the best of intentions, those responsible have overwhelmingly failed to fulfil the promise of article 18. This is why this book is so significant. Article 18 has shaped so much in our treaties, in the way we work, in our very parliament, and here we have a significant writer calling for there to be a reassessment.

Imprecision in both the terms and implementation of article 18 has led to a distracting concentration on the meaning of religion, what constitutes a religion, which religions are acceptable to government and what limits government can reasonably place on religious practice. What becomes glaringly clear is that protection of non-religious beliefs is mostly ignored. In fact, article 18 has been used to justify what amounts to sectarian interests and all the damage that goes hand in hand with that. Using a right-from-religion perspective, Ms Wallace reveals inherent biases in our society.

While I do actually strongly agree with Ms Wallace's assessment of article 18, I wish to still acknowledge the significance of article 18 and the whole United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As I said, it came out of the aftermath of the Second World War. It was 1948, shortly after the war had ended, and you can imagine how significant it was at that time to help ease the trauma of that terrible period where fascism for a time looked as though it could have taken over the world. I do believe that this treaty and even article 18 would have helped ease the feelings about the abuse and all the vile acts that had occurred, and it would have been done with the best of intentions.

However, at times we need to reassess, even with a human rights treaty, and that is why this book is so important. Ms Wallace's work is relevant to how religions operate in Australia and indeed how governments operate. The colonialists that established Australia as a secular nation and the leading decision makers have been presenting a dominance of Christian religion. Early governments in the 19th century actually worked not to encourage sectarianism. This is what is very significant when you examine it in the context of Ms Wallace's analysis. Those early governments did not give official recognition to one church over others. State schools were required to be secular. There was no established church as there was in England.

Helen Irving has written extensively on this. In 2004 she wrote:

"This policy was reflected nationally in the Commonwealth Constitution. The Constitution' framers faced two questions head-on: was Australia a nation with a particular religious character? Should the Constitution recognise this? They answered no to both. During debate, much concern was expressed about the potential for religious intolerance, even official support for religious persecution. Governments, framers said, should not inquire into the beliefs of individuals."

That approach, I believe, is in keeping with the spirit of article 18, but, tragically, the way article 18 has come to be interpreted and used has now changed considerably. Helen Irving, in her essay entitled 'Australia's foundations were definitely and deliberately not Christian', also quotes the words of the first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton. He said:

"The whole mode of government, the whole province of the State, is secular ... and there is no justification for inserting into your secular documents of State provisions or expressions which refer to matters best dealt with by the churches ...
Those are our forebears, those who were the drafters of the important Constitution of this nation."

If you look at the words of more recent leaders, you would think we were a Christian nation. Former Treasurer, Peter Costello, at a National Day of Thanksgiving Commemoration, said the Ten Commandments 'are the foundation of our law and our society'. Mr Costello said that not only our law, but our moral standards and values derive from the 'Judeo-Christian tradition', or, more specifically, from Australia's 'historic Christian faith'. Former Prime Minister John Howard similarly claimed we are 'predominantly a society instructed by the Judeo-Christian ethic'. And according to former Governor-General Major General Michael Jeffery, Australia has a 'Christian heritage', and 'faith in God has been an important establishing and unifying principle for our nation'.

I think that contrast of going from the Constitution and what our forebears actually wrote when drawing up the Constitution, to ensure we were a secular state, to fast-forwarding about 100 years later, where a very specific religious stamp is put on our society, is very strong evidence of how important Ms Wallace's book is.

As I explained, article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the right for all individuals to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. But these personal, so-called 'civil rights' are not absolute. They are distinguished from political rights. Article 18 requires separation of religious interests from state power, or maybe I should say it should require that separation. Article 18 effectively promotes, by reference to its religion-related language, that it has become used as a manifesto about religion, despite the fact that it applies to everyone, and that should have been what always remained the essence of article 18-to atheists, to agnostics, to the unconcerned as well as to religious people. However, article 18 has been used by some churches as a pretext for demanding political, economic and social benefits, and we see that in our own society and in many societies.

In Australia, religion permeates so many of our institutions. Our own chamber starts with certain religious prayers every day, and that was the dominant religion. We see the dominance of religious instruction in our schools and financial benefits to religious institutions, through funding and tax exemptions. I would argue the interests of religious institutions and individuals are reflected in government policy and legislation too often. Religious institutions throughout the world have thus become politically influential and, I think very unfortunately, very wealthy, because of how they have entwined themselves with the state, sometimes to the tune of billions of dollars.

Ms Wallace writes that we need to rethink article 18 and what it means, if we are to realise its promise. It had promise and I believe it still has promise. The intention of article 18 is not to privilege anyone's religion or beliefs, but to ensure that governments protect religious freedoms from impartial policies and legislation, allowing individual religious and others groups to flourish according to accepted democratic governance. Freedom from religion or belief, it is argued, is the real promise of article 18-that is, freedom from suppression or imposition of religious or non-religious doctrines by the state or anyone else. As Ms Wallace said herself, 'Article 18 fosters the privileging of religious beliefs, hindering the equal right of others to exercise the same right.' It does not have to be like that, and I still believe that we can ensure the real intention of article 18 is realised.

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