RSA urges religious clerics to advocate expanding NSW faith body to add atheist leader

Si Gladman / 16 January 2024

The Rationalist Society of Australia has asked the newly appointed New South Wales Faith Affairs Council to advocate for the Minns government to overturn what has been described as religious-based discrimination against an atheist community leader.

In December, the RSA wrote to all religious clerics of the 19-member body to urge them to call on multiculturalism minister Steve Kamper to expand the Faith Affairs Council to include Steve Marton, President of Sydney Atheists, as a representative of the state’s non-religious and ex-religious community.

In its letter, the RSA argued that excluding non-religious voices would be at odds with Australia’s international commitment to protecting both freedom of religion and belief.  

In November, the Minns government rejected Mr Marton’s nomination to represent the state’s rapidly-growing non-religious and ex-religious population on the Faith Affairs Council, even while expanding the membership from 16 to 19 members at the last minute.

In response to the decision, the Atheist Foundation of Australia said it was “disturbed by this unexpected religious discrimination” against Mr Marton.

The RSA’s letter to members of the Faith Affairs Council urged them to address the matter as a priority.

“We are deeply concerned that the NSW government appears to have discriminated against Mr Marton on the grounds of belief in rejecting his application to be a member of the Faith Affairs Council,” it said.

“Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice…’

“In 2018, the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom in Australia emphasised that freedom of thought, conscience and religion “is a right enjoyed by all, not just those of faith”, and protects “those who live a life of faith and those who live by other beliefs or, indeed, no beliefs.”

Many of the religious representatives on the Faith Affairs Council have been at the forefront of the push for religious anti-discrimination laws in recent years. 

In early December, the Faith Affairs Council appointed Sydney Anglican Bishop Michael Stead (pictured) as the chair. He is chair of the church’s Religious Freedom Reference Group, which works to address “restrictions on the ability of Christian individuals, churches and organisations to manifest their faith and mission in society”. He is also chair of the Freedom for Faith think tank and lobby group, which strongly advocates for ‘religious freedom’ laws.

According to a Uniting Church news report, the Faith Affairs Council also adopted an ‘Interfaith Resolution’ that recognised New South Wales as being “proudly multifaith and multicultural”.

The report also said that the Faith Affairs Council would discuss seeking government support for “establishing multifaith prayer rooms in government hospitals and other buildings” and “government chaplaincy programs”.

Leading up to the 2023 state election, Mr Kamper and Premier Chris Minns promised faith groups that the body would provide them direct access to government decision-makers so that it could advise on issues including “objections to euthanasia/voluntary assisted dying”, religious discrimination” and “additional funding for chaplaincy”.

As the RSA reported in early November, religious lobbyists will urge the Faith Affairs Council to advocate against gay conversion laws that affect the freedom of religious communities to practise their faith.

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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.