SBS Radio App

Download the FREE SBS Radio App for a better listening experience

(Getty Images)

Australia has been a secular country since federation. The Constitution of 1901 prohibits the Commonwealth government from interfering with the free exercise of any religion. But how far can freedom of religion go in a country where Christians have been the majority since European settlement, whilst 30 per cent of the population has no religious belief?

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Friday, October 27, 2017 - 16:45
7 min 15 sec

For tens of thousands of years, Australia’s religion has been based on the spiritual traditions of the Dreaming practised by its first inhabitants. The focus shifted towards Christianity following the arrival of European settlers in the late eighteenth century. Back then, we were a predominantly protestant Christian country, according to Dr Renae Barker, a law lecturer at the University of Western Australia.

“So the settlement had a chaplain, who was authorised by the state, and paid by the state, but as our colony developed, it initially became very clear that Protestant Christianity or the Church of England wasn't the only religion to be quite dominant. In fact, Catholics became very dominant very quickly, as did other religious groups, so Lutheran, Methodists, Presbyterians, also grew in number and in strengths of voice. And as a result, the state began to accept initially that there has been a plurality for all Christian religions initially had to be treated the same.”

In 1901, the federal constitution enshrined the secularism that would enable a plurality of different religious views and voices to operate in the community.

Associate Professor of Law at the University of Newcastle, Neil Foster explains.

“The founders of Australia incorporated into the federal constitution, a provision called the “Section 116”, which sets out the rules of the Commonwealth parliament shall not make laws, which establish or set up a religion, so we can’t have a national church here in Australia; and Commonwealth parliament will not interfere with the free exercise of people’s religion. Both Commonwealth and the state governments, over the years, have accepted this general principle that religious freedom is an important value in Australian society.”

Dr Renae Barker says secularism allows people of all faiths to freely express their religious beliefs in the public sphere.

“What secularism in Australia says is if 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 but your views are no more important than someone of another religion nor somebody who has no religion.”

Religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism were practised in Australia from as early as the 19th century.

Osman Rane’s ancestors were one of the first Muslim settlers. He finds peace praying five times a day out of his busy schedule as a business owner and president of the Muslim Charitable Foundation in Brisbane.

“I am third generation Australian Muslim. My grandfather came from India in 1901, and my great grandfather came from India around about 1879. We’ve been here a long time and we’ve always practised our religion and kept our faith as best as we could.”

The White Australia Policy that lasted seven decades ended as Australia became increasingly multicultural following post-war migration from Europe, later on, South-East Asia and then the Middle East. Australia remains predominantly Christian with 52 per cent of the population identifying with the religion in the 2016 Census. Catholicism is now the largest Christian denomination, comprising 23 percent of the population.

Dr Barker says it is unsurprising that Christian values are entrenched in the law.

“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 is 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.”

According to Neil Foster, this shift can also pose threats to the freedom of religion. He’s referring to a Christian children’s party entertainer, who lost her job after publicly supporting a “no vote” in the same-sex marriage postal survey.

Australia remains predominantly Christian with 52 per cent of the population identifying with the religion in the 2016 Census. Catholicism is now the largest Christian denomination, comprising 23 percent of the population.

“The debate over same sex marriage has raised difficult issues, because, traditionally, many religious groups, not only Christians, but Muslims, and Buddhists, and Jews, and people from other religious groups, have taken the view that marriage is only a relationship that should be between a man and a woman. It’s unacceptable that someone should be dismissed or threatened because of their choice to vote either yes or no. We should have a real strong commitment to people’s freedom of speech.”

One Nations leader Pauline Hanson has been calling to ban the burqa and she caused a commotion recently when she entered the Australian Senate dressed in the religious garment. Dr Barker says this is a clear example of the freedom of speech and religion in Australia.

“So if they believe there is an aspect of your religion which is not compatible with the way they see the world operating or they believe needs to change, they’re in Australia, they are free to criticise and to critique your religion but you are also free to defend your religion in the public sphere by arguing there is nothing wrong with your religious belief.”

Dr Barker also points out that freedom of religion is not always absolute.

“So, for example, here in Australia, we have the age of 18 as the minimum age for marriage, and while some religions may permit or even encourage young people to marry earlier than that. In Australia, we say there is risk of those young people having their rights infringed if they marry before they are an adult, before the age of 18, and so we put in place that limitation, and that may for some people be a limit on their freedom of religion.”

Islam represents 2.6 per cent of the population according to the 2016 Census.

Osman Rane says he’s had no problems growing up as Muslim in Brisbane although he admits he’s also come across some opposition to his faith in recent times.

“Now there’s much more visibility. Everybody sees Muslims when they’re walking on the street or in the shopping centres. And also, because, since 9/11 and ISIS, there are a lot more intolerance towards Islam.”

But overall, he believes there is still freedom of religion in Australia.

“You can practice your religion freely, as long [as], in a moderate way, it’s accepted. It’s accepted wholeheartedly by most Australians.”

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