Faith advisory body commits to “secular democracy” with space for “all faiths and none”

Si Gladman / 23 May 2024

A state government faith advisory body that excluded non-religious voices from its membership has declared its support for secular democracy that “makes space for people of all faiths and none”, documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal.

The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has obtained documents from Multiculturalism NSW detailing the initial meetings of the New South Wales Faith Affairs Council, established by the Minns government late last year amid controversy.

In deliberations since September last year, members of the council have workshopped wording for a Terms of Reference, with the final version presented for confirmation at the 31 January meeting of Faith Affairs Council. Multiculturalism NSW did not provide the minutes for this meeting, but the proposed Terms of Reference appeared to be non-controversial.

The Terms of Reference say:

The Council recognises that a secular democratic system of government is foundational to the protection of religious freedom and religious diversity. Our secular democracy is based on State neutrality towards religion, which makes space for people of all faiths and none. The Council recognises that the NSW Government has no position on matters of faith, theology, or religious belief, unless their practice conflicts with NSW or Australian laws and democratic institutions.

In the meeting agenda, the Faith Affairs Council, chaired by Anglican Bishop Michael Stead (pictured), also said that its work would be guided by the state’s Multicultural Principles – as per the Multicultural NSW Act. The Terms of Reference outlined these principles, including:

All individuals in New South Wales, irrespective of their religious backgrounds, should have the greatest possible opportunity to contribute to, and participate in, all aspects of public life…

In November last year, the Minns government rejected the nomination of atheist leader Steve Marton to represent the non-religious and ex-religious communities on the council, even as the government extended the membership from 16 to 19. Australia’s peak atheist group labelled the decision “unexpected religious discrimination”.

In December, the RSA wrote to each member of the Faith Affairs Council, asking them to help overturn the religious-based discrimination in the government’s decision to block non-religious and ex-religious representation. However, none have responded.

The Labor Party, when in opposition, promised religious groups it would establish an advisory body with a direct line to government ministers and the ability to influence key policy areas. These included funding for chaplaincy programs, “objections to euthanasia/voluntary assisted dying”, and religious discrimination laws.

Prior to the state election early last year, the RSA warned Labor that the proposed Faith Affairs Council would privilege the already powerful voices of religious clerics even further in policy making and marginalise the voices of non-religious citizens.

In response, new multiculturalism minister Steve Kamper told the RSA that “a diversity of viewpoints” would be represented and claimed that the government provided opportunities for all people to “contribute and participate in all aspects of public life and NSW Government activities and programs”.

However, the government has not provided non-religious and ex-religious community groups an equal opportunity to advise on matters of religion and belief.

In an interview on 2GB Radio in December, Mr Marton warned that the religious leaders appointed to the body held views at odds with most religious people on a number of issues, including same-sex marriage and voluntary assisted dying.

The documents obtained from under freedom of information laws show the Faith Affairs Council’s eagerness to influence the implementation of VAD laws. At an initial meeting in September last year, it sought changes to the scope of its work to go beyond “current or prospective matters” in order to capture issues “such as Voluntary Assisted Dying”.

The documents also show that Faith Affairs Council members were scheduled to meet with Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant in March this year for her to provide them with an “update on voluntary assisted dying now that the legislation has taken effect, and to hear your further feedback.”

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Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Image: Michael Stead (LinkedIn)

All the more reason.