Submission: Rights and Responsibilities

Diane Preston / 31 October 2014

The Rationalist Society (RSA) is Australia’s oldest free-thought organisation, established in 1906. Over the past 100 years or so, the RSA has promoted reason and evidence-based decision making in public policy, independent of theological creeds and dogma. One of the major aims of the RSA is to raise awareness among the public of the value of Reason and the benefits of a rationalist approach to life and living.

The principal author of this submission is Diane Preston, General Counsel for the Rationalist Society, reviewed by RSA President Dr Meredith Doig and RSA Vice President Lyn Allison.


This submission addresses the “Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship” found in Appendix A of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) consultation guide. The AHRC wishes to focus on:

  • the ways you exercise your right to freedom of religion
  • where restrictions on freedom of religious worship exist
  • whether you have felt restricted or prohibited from exercising your right to freedom of religion
  • what could be done to enable you to exercise your right to freedom of religion.


This submission recognises the wide compass of the Right by the AHRC, namely:

“The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship encompasses the beliefs of all religions, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief”

Whilst the subject of this submission is on this Right, the RSA wishes to express strong support for the position the AHRC has taken with respect to the new security laws recently passed by the Commonwealth Parliament. The RSA shares the concern of the AHRC that such laws are too broad and seriously undermine the right to freedom of expression as well as undermine the accountability of Australia’s security agents. In particular, the RSA condemns the unnecessarily broad restriction on press freedom that could see journalists jailed for disclosing information about “special intelligence operations”.


The RSA supports the principle of secularism((The term ‘secularism’ was first used by George Holyoake in 1851 to mean the promotion of a social order separate from religion.)), meaning clear separation between religion and the State within a pluralistic democracy, whilst recognising the importance of faith in the lives of many Australians. The RSA considers that religion is a private matter and whilst the expression of religious freedom requires the protection of law, religious belief has no place in determining Australian law or social policy.

The RSA is concerned to ensure that any recommendations of the AHRC to advance the expression of religious freedom do not do so at the expense of the generally accepted secularism of Australian society.

The RSA agrees with former High Court judge Michael Kirby:

 “The principle of secularism is one of the greatest developments in human rights in the world. We must safeguard and protect it, for it can come under threat in contemporary Australia” ((The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, In Praise of Secular Education, December 2009.))

It is through the lens of safeguarding secularism that the RSA approaches the right to religious freedom of expression. The RSA is of the view that as a nation we are required to be vigilant in safeguarding secularism. Where the expression of religious freedom undermines the integrity of Australia as a secular nation, it is important for such expression to be constrained.

The work of the RSA selected below highlights areas of social policy where there has been a failure of vigilance and a need to constrain the expression of religious freedom.

Incursion of religion into secular schooling

The RSA, with other freethought groups including the parent group FIRIS (Fairness in Religions in Schools), has long advocated for the dismantling of current policy with respect to the teaching of Special Religious Instruction in State public schools. The RSA has made submissions to the Victorian State Government on this matter ((For example: Assuring Secularism in Victorian Government Schools, May 2010))and followed up with numerous letters to the Victorian Minister for Education. Recognising the sensitive nature of this matter, most recently the RSA suggested the formation of a Committee comprising religious and non-religious stakeholders charged with conducting a public consultation about the role of education about religions in Victorian government schools. The last such public consultation was in the 1970s (the Russell Review).

It is clear from the work of FIRIS that children are being harmed by the current policy. That harm is manifest in children feeling excluded on being forced to withdraw from class because of their religious or non-religious belief. Children are also being harmed through indoctrination where the providers of Special Religious Instruction proselytise their brand of faith.

The RSA has also strongly advocated the Commonwealth Government to fundamentally change the delivery of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program in public schools.  Persons who are not trained professionals presently deliver the program. Indeed professionals are presently excluded from the delivery of the program, unless they are authorised as religiously-affiliated by religious organisations. The RSA is of the view that in matters of the welfare of children, we should aim for the best interests of children. The decision of the Commonwealth to remove the option for schools to choose non-religious counsellors and health professionals from the Chaplaincy Program does not serve the best interests of children and can cause harm to children.  It can cause harm because it is reasonably foreseeable that a chaplain, through lack of professional training, could fail to identify and act on the psychological needs of a child.

Role of education in the family and the community to promote freedom of choice in religious expression

Section 17 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities provides that ‘Families are the fundamental group unit of society and are entitled to be protected by society and the State’.

The family is a major factor in the life choices and opportunities of a child. Whilst Australians are free to choose religious beliefs and religious practices, the RSA considers it important to explore whether our children are free to make such choices.

It is not considered contentious by most that parents who hold certain belief structures, whether faith based or not, bring their children up within those belief structures. It is however our contention that society has a role in encouraging the right for children to choose to follow or not to follow the belief structures of their parents. Without that freedom of choice, children are constrained to follow the beliefs of others, including their parents.

To emphasise, the freedom of religious expression is dependent on the freedom of choice. As a society, we constrain the freedom of our children to hold religious or non-religious belief if we do not give them the freedom to choose those beliefs.

The AHRC, in promoting the freedom of religious expression by considering how such freedom can be enhanced, should ensure that Australians and Australian children in particular, may freely choose their religious beliefs and may freely leave their religion without the prospect of harm.

The RSA considers that the key to providing the opportunity for Australians to choose what beliefs they wish to hold is through education, with particular emphasis on the skill of critical thinking. That skill embraces the Socratic principle that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. In the absence of that skill, there is a risk that many unexamined lives together, whether in a family or in the community, may result in harm and injustice.

To borrow the words of Richard Paul and Linda Elder in The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008:

“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.”

A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.


Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and socio-centrism.

The RSA is of the view that it should be mandatory for all children in Australian schools to learn critical thinking and reasoning.

Mandatory reporting of child abuse

The AHRC has made it clear that with freedom, comes responsibility. It is the strong view of the RSA that persons in or employed by religious institutions have the same duties as other citizens in preventing harm, especially to our children. The RSA notes the work of the Royal Commission in this area as well as other enquiries.

The RSA supported the recommendation of extending the mandatory reporting of abuse under the Victorian Children Youth and Families Act 2005 to religious personnel.((Submission to the Victorian Government Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations, Sept 2012)) The RSA supported the call made by Katherine McMillan SC before the recent Queensland enquiry into child abuse to extend the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse to include priests, churches and other religious organisations.

The RSA acknowledges there is debate on whether the confessional should be the subject of mandatory reporting. The concern is that in so extending mandatory reporting to the confessional, information will dry up and perpetrators will not seek the guidance of the Church. Notwithstanding that debate, our experience in Australia and the findings of the 10 year Royal Commission in Ireland demonstrate that religious institutions cannot hide behind a cloak of religious freedom.

The RSA is of the view that religious institutions cannot be afforded special treatment with respect to the welfare of our children; they must share the same accountability as other institutions.

Sponsorship of the Christian religion by the Commonwealth Parliament

The standing orders of Parliament require the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate to read a prayer for the Parliament and the Christian Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each sitting of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

There is debate that such a practice contravenes section 116 of the Constitution. Section 116 provides that the Commonwealth shall not make any law ‘for imposing any religious observance’.

There are provisions in the Constitution of the Commonwealth and the States that refer to the Christian God. The RSA is of the view that Australian parliaments should not sponsor any particular religion and that there should not be an exclusive place for the reading of a prayer from one particular religion in any Australian parliament.

Any such sponsorship offends against the many Australians of different faiths and of no faith. Further and importantly, such sponsorship offends against the Commonwealth Parliament as a democracy. The Commonwealth Parliament is required to represent the Australian people no matter their religious persuasion and without preference to a given religion.

The RSA is of the view that such provisions alienate many Australians of non-Christian persuasion and of no religious persuasion. Such alienation creates a divided society where some sections of society may feel more valued than others do. The RSA notes that there continues to be oaths and oaths of office in legislation that refer to the Christian God. Whilst noting the same, the RSA recognises that oaths in the name of other deities and affirmations are available to Australians.


The failures of vigilance in safeguarding secularism explored above are not highlighted to promote any political or ideological agenda of the RSA. Instead, they are highlighted to demonstrate the harm caused to the religious freedom of all Australians, whether that freedom finds its expression in faith or not. Harm is caused when the State supports one form of religious expression over another and when the State provides more favourable treatment to one form of religious expression over another. The neutrality of the State is essential to achieving freedom of religious expression. Only a secular State offers neutrality. The RSA urges the AHRC to safeguard secularism and constrain the any expression of religious freedom that threatens to undermine the integrity of a secular State.

31 October 2014


All the more reason.