Dear Prime Minister,
The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) congratulates you upon becoming the 30th Prime Minister of Australia. We have two concerns we would like to raise with you: firstly, your Government’s response to the Ruddock Report, and secondly, your urging Australians to pray for rain in drought affected areas.
The Ruddock Report
We understand from media reports that you are intent on introducing new ‘religious freedom’ laws in response to the Ruddock Report. In your interview with Fairfax media, you say children in public schools “should be able to do Christmas plays, they should be able to talk about Easter. That’s our culture.” Further, you have in the past cited “conscience protections” as a key issue and you have labelled the mockery of Christians as a form of discrimination you would not tolerate.
Prime Minister, children in public schools can do Christmas plays and talk about Easter. That’s what a secular system of education means: acceptance of all religions and of none in a non-discriminatory environment. Further, mockery is not discrimination – it’s freedom of expression at work.
The reality is that religion, particularly Christianity, is not under attack in Australia and there is no need for a federal law to promote and protect ‘religious freedom’. Section 116 of Australia’s constitution prohibits parliament from making laws for establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.
Christians are well represented in federal parliament. Over one quarter of parliamentarians meet regularly as part of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. At the start of every parliamentary sitting day, there is a reading of Christian prayers, with little regard for the sensitivities of Muslim, Jewish or atheist members of parliament. Several Prime Ministers – and now yourself – have been actively observant Christians.
Churches enjoy fringe benefits tax and GST exemptions under the Commonwealth Charities Act 2013. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where taxpayers largely pay for a whole separate school system that represents one denomination of one religion (Catholic). How would Australians feel if their taxes were paying instead for a whole separate school system operated by Sunni Muslims, institutionalising Sunni Muslim beliefs?
Australia already has laws prohibiting religious discrimination. The Federal Fair Work Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity in employment. All states, apart from New South Wales and South Australia, have laws prohibiting the refusing of service to people on the grounds of religion.
According to Pew Center research that compares attitudes to religion around the world, social hostility towards religion in Australia has increased since 2007 – but this is attributed to “nationalist or anti-immigrant” activity, not hostility towards the dominant religion. They further report that government restrictions on religion in Australia has decreased from an already low base over the same period.
Strengthening some legal protections at the expense of others is misguided. A large majority of Australians voted in favour of non-discrimination through the marriage equality plebiscite. To introduce a law that purports to protect ‘religious freedom’, when there is clearly no need nor demand for it, is likely only to alienate an already disillusioned population.
If there is to be any codification of freedom of religion and belief, it should be within a comprehensive Bill of Rights, designed to balance fundamental human rights. And in such a bill, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion must include the right to freedom from the imposition of religious dogma or doctrine, the right to leave a religion without fear of repercussions, and the right to criticise a religion without fear of prosecution.
Praying for rain
The second concern we have is less weighty but more symbolic. You were reported as urging Australians to pray for rain in drought affected areas.
Prime Minister, what is needed is rational planning for drought, not prayers. From the dawn of time, people have prayed for rain in some form, from the tribes of Africa to native Americans. We trust it comes as no surprise that no credible study through a randomised, double-blind trials has ever supported the efficacy of prayer.
Perhaps your reference to prayer in this instance was simply a ‘turn of phrase’, familiar to someone with a religious background; but it is distinctly unhelpful to thousands of Australian farmers who are among the world’s leading users of science applied to farming practices. We would like to be assured that this turn of phrase does not suggest an attitude of science denialism that has so tarnished the pronouncements of some of your colleagues who ought to know better.
In closing, we would be grateful if you could clarify for us:
- Will your Government protect the rights of the increasing number of Australians who do not identify with a religion as to their freedoms on no less a basis than those who do so identify?
- Will you personally affirm your commitment to evidence-based public policy based on science and evidence?
Dr Meredith Doig OAM FAICD