Philip Ruddock to Review Religious Freedom

The Prime Minister today (22 November) announced the appointment of former Howard Government Minister and Member for Berowra, Philip Ruddock to examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to religious freedom.

According to the announcement of the review:

“The impending legalisation of same-sex marriage has seen a variety of proposals for legislative reform to protect freedom of religion.  Many of these proposals go beyond the immediate issue of marriage.

Any reforms to protect religious freedom at large should be undertaken carefully. There is a high risk of unintended consequences when Parliament attempts to legislate protections for basic rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion.  The Government is particularly concerned to prevent uncertainties caused by generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations.

This will be a timely expert stocktake to inform consideration of any necessary legislative reforms.”

Mr Ruddock will be assisted by an expert panel consisting of the recently appointed President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, the Hon Annabelle Bennett AO SC and Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO.

The Review will report its findings by 31 March 2018.

While cautiously welcoming the Review, it does seem that this may be an attempt to defer consideration of important religious freedoms as part of the current proposal to amend the definition of marriage.  A number of members of Cabinet have indicted that this will not preclude consideration of amendments and we certainly trust that this is the case.

We also note that the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has already commenced an inquiry last year into the protection and promotion of the human right to freedom of religion or belief worldwide, including in Australia.