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Settlement Guide: What does freedom of religion mean in Australia

People Source: Getty

Australia is a secular country that enables freedom of religion. In this week’s SBS Radio Settlement Guide, let’s explore what that means.

What is secularism?

Australia has been a secular country since Federation in 1901. It means that the State and Church are separate, and as such, the government can’t interfere with the exercise of religion.

“What secularism in Australia says is if that you want to express your religious belief as to euthanasia, as to terrorism, as to marriage laws, as to abortion – you’re welcome to do so," explains Dr. Renae Barker, a law lecturer at the University of Western Australia.

"But your views are no more important than someone of another religion nor somebody who has no religion." 

What is religious freedom?

Australians can practice the religion of their choice and express their beliefs in public. While Christians are in majority (52 per cent), nearly a third of Australians say that they are not religious. Quite far behind, the other most common religions are Islam and Buddhism.

Religions like Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are not new in Australia; they’ve been around since the 19th century.

Women wear hijabs outside Parliament House in Canberra

People are free to criticise religion, the same way that people are allowed to defend their religion.

Secularism is not perfect

Even though Australia is -mostly- secular, you can still see the reflection of Christian values in certain laws.

But Dr. Renae Barker says it’s starting to change: “That may no longer be appropriate in a setting where we have people from a variety of faiths: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism are all growing faiths here in Australia, as are people with no religion."

"They make up quite a large percentage of the Australian population now, which wasn’t the case at federation.

"As a result, we’re starting to adjust and change our laws to try and accommodate that variety of voice and often what that means is you’re taking religion more and more out of the laws because it no longer represents the majority.

For example, the current laws preventing same-sex marriage are rooted in religious beliefs.

This picture taken on September 10, 2017 shows demonstrators taking part in a same-sex marriage rally in Sydney.

Freedom of religion is not absolute

Most religious principles are respected in Australia, as long as they don’t go against the laws.

For example, you can’t get married if you’re a minor, even though some religions allow it.

The Australian religious landscape in numbers

52 per cent of the Australian population is Christians (the biggest subgroup being Catholics at 22.6 per cent). 50 years ago, 88 per cent of Australians were Christians.

The percentage of Australians claiming they have no religion (30.1 per cent) has gone up by almost 5 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

Australia is becoming more religiously diverse. As of 2016, 2.6 per cent of Australians said they practice Islam, 2.4 per cent Buddhism, 1.9 per cent Hinduism and 0.5 per cent Sikhism.

Find out more about the results of the Australian census when it comes to religion here