This is the Rationalist Society of Australia’s submission to the Western Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of the state’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984.
The Rationalist Society of Australia is Australia’s oldest freethought group, promoting the use of evidence and reason in public policy since 1906. The RSA bases its policies on universal human values, shared by most religious and non-religious people.
We support the democratic ideals of freedom of the individual, equality before the law, and a secular society that neither privileges nor discriminates against people because of their religion or belief.
Discrimination on the ground of absence of religion
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Consistent with the breadth of this guarantee, the Equal Opportunity Act should unambiguously protect nonreligious members of the community on an equal footing with religious members of the community.
We note that section 4(3) of the Act provides “religious or political conviction shall be construed so as to include a lack or absence of religious or political conviction”.
Recommendation: Any revisions to the Act should ensure, whether by including an appropriate definition or otherwise, that it is clear that discrimination on the basis of absence of religious belief, conviction or activity is prohibited.
Religious exceptions to prohibitions against discrimination
Article 18(3) of the ICCPR also provides that the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
We note that sections 72(d) and 73 of the Act provide religious bodies very broad exceptions from compliance with the Act’s various prohibitions on discrimination. We are concerned that these exceptions are overly broad, do not take full account of the fact that religious bodies routinely provide services on behalf of government, and permit religious bodies to act in ways that unjustifiably harm the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
Recommendation: The scope of the religious bodies exceptions should be defined more closely in alignment with Article 18(3) of the ICCPR so that the exceptions do not permit religious bodies (particularly when acting as government service providers) to act in ways that unjustifiably harm the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
President, Rationalist Society of Australia
27 October 2021