The Australian Army has questions to answer about the lawfulness of its religious activities after it appears the Army required all members of a regiment to take part in a religious service.
Documents obtained by the Rationalist Society of Australia under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws show that the administrative instructions for the 1st Armoured Regiment’s parade and church service, held in Adelaide on Saturday 8 July last year, stated that “all Officers and Soldiers” would take part.
The administrative instructions do not appear to include any process for an officer or soldier to opt out of participating in the church service.
As the RSA reported last year, the event, held to mark the transfer of the unit’s banners, known as Regimental Colours, from Darwin to Adelaide, included a street parade of up to 350 personnel and a one-hour-plus church service at St Peter’s Cathedral.
During the service, Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Michael Henderson led the troops in a prayer ritual which asked them to “dedicate ourselves” to “the honour and service of God”. The service also contained prayers, hymns or scriptural readings (watch the full church service here).
Section 123B of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) makes it unlawful to compel military personnel to take part in religious observance. It says:
No member of the Defence Force who has conscientious objection shall be compelled to answer any question as to his or her religion, nor shall any regulation or other order compel attendance at any religious service.
A significant number of non-religious Army personnel would have taken part in the event, given that official Defence data show a majority of Australian Defence Force personnel do not have a religion.
In a letter to the RSA in August last year, Defence Personnel Minister Matt Keogh’s office insisted that Army troops had not been compelled to participate in a religious service. But there is nothing in the administrative instructions for the event about permitting personnel to opt out of the religious ceremony.
“Active participation in the religious component was voluntary; Army does not mandate or compel participation in religious activities,” Mr Keogh’s chief of staff Catherine Bergin wrote.
During the church service, Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Henderson told his troops that they had come together to ask for “God’s blessing” on “these devices which represent to us our duty towards our sovereign and our country”. He also said: “May these devices be a sign to all of us that God is with us always – in danger and in difficulties. May they increase our faith and hope in Him, who is king of kings and lord of lords.”
RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said there were questions to be answered.
“Did officers and soldiers have any real opportunity to opt out of participating in the religious service? If so, what was that process?” she said.
“Does Defence have clear policy guidance about ensuring personnel are not compelled to participate in religious practices?”
“Why is the Army holding celebrations in a church anyway when most military personnel aren’t religious?”
In the documents obtained under FOI, a ‘Decision Brief’ outlines the nature of the event and details the planned activities, including the transportation of personnel to the city and to the cathedral.
“Ceremonies will [be] conducted at the historic Torrens Parade Ground, before a short march to the Cathedral, where the devices will be laid-up,” it says.
“The intended location of the devices, St Peter’s Cathedral, has guidons from Royal Australian Armoured Corps units that have been based in South Australia.
“1st Armoured Regiment envisages this as an excellent opportunity to formally relocate the devices to the home of the Regiment in Adelaide, to integrate the Regiment’s history in the 9th Brigade and to raise the public profile of Army in the South Australian community.”
While the Army viewed the event as an opportunity to showcase its troops and hardware for the Adelaide community, The Daily Mail reported that onlookers found the overt religious nature of the event disturbing.
In the Rationale magazine, Army Colonel and Defence statistician Phillip Hoglin wrote that Army’s decision to “serve God” instead of inspiring the next generation of potential recruits was a squandered opportunity.
Dr Doig said the continued domination of military ceremonies and traditions by Christianity was inappropriate and showed that reform of the military culture was urgently required.
In late 2022, Minister Keogh’s office told the RSA that “most” military ceremonies were “predominantly secular”, with the inclusion of “small portions” of religious and cultural content dependent on the context, audience and supporting personnel.
Non-religious personnel who conscientiously object to participating in such religious activities could be concerned about withdrawing given the Army’s emphasis on “working for the team” as a central part of its culture.
The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.
Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.