23 September 2015
The Australian Human Rights Commission
Religious Freedom Roundtable
Call for submissions

Dear Mr Wilson

We would like to draw your attention to an important matter regarding the rights of children.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion” including freedom from coercion in religion. These rights are intended to apply to all persons. Legally, a child is a person, so unless some age-specific limit on such rights can be identified, we must presume that these rights apply to children as well.

Of course there are many areas of legislation where, quite legitimately, a minimum age is required. There are also areas of law where the rights of the child are specifically protected. In certain areas however, past attitudes have led to neglect, particularly where religion is involved. With regard to institutional child abuse, we now recognise that this past neglect has been shameful.

Regarding the rights of parents, there has been a presumption that the wishes of parents may override the rights of the child, as a means of continuing traditional child-rearing practices. For example, arguments have been presented by parents that they have a the right to refuse vaccinations or medical treatment for their children, as if there is a presumption that children are their “property”. However there is no ownership right of parents over children. It is accepted that the state has a responsibility to intervene to protect the child. This responsibility has been increasingly recognised, but not, perhaps, in relation to religion.

The major question here is: do parents have the right to have their children indoctrinated in the religion of their choice, particularly in schools, or do children have the right to be free from coercion in religion, as guaranteed in their basic human rights? Should children be given the opportunity to make up their own minds with respect to religion, and be encouraged to think critically and rationally in these matters, so that they can make up their own minds when they are older, or should they effectively have this right taken from them, to be indoctrinated into a particular faith, when the opportunity to mould the mind of a child is greatest?

We submit that the answers to these question is that a child’s freedom of thought be protected. We submit that this is a matter of critical importance, not only for the future of the child, but for the future harmony of our society.

Regarding the specific issues cited for comment:
Government laws and regulations that limit the right to religious freedom.
We submit that the government does far too much to promote religious “freedom”, in that religions are massively subsidised at taxpayer expense. Religious schools should not receive government funding for the purpose of indoctrinating children into particular religions. Far from being an exercise of religious freedom, the purpose of such indoctrination is to remove the child’s religious freedom, it is coercion in religion, and it limits the child’s freedom of choice.

Another major issue limiting religious freedom, in the sense that it is a bias towards religion, is that the “advancement of religion” is still regarded as a charitable purpose, irrespective of whether there is a public benefit. We submit that the resulting tax concessions are not only a financial cost to the government, but the net outcome is a social cost, not a benefit.

Preserving religious freedom when an organisation receives taxpayer’s money to provide a public service.
Organisations that receive taxpayer’s money to provide a public benefit should not be permitted to discriminate in any way on the basis of religion.

Balancing the right to religious freedom and equality before the law
People should be treated equally before the law irrespective of their religion.

Developing mechanisms to support religious inclusion and social cohesion.
The best way to support religious inclusion and social cohesion would be to stop funding and promoting measures that enforce religious segregation and foster social division. The most obvious example of this in children in schools. All children should be treated equally irrespective of religion and they should not be coerced in a particular religion. Adults should be free to follow their own religious freedom as they see fit, but it should not be the role of government to intervene in matters of religious differences.

Statement of purpose and Guiding principles

Regarding the Statement of Purpose, we submit that the definition of religious freedom should include, as in the Universal Declaration, a specific reference that this includes the freedom to change religions, to have no religion and not to be coerced in religion. We submit that it should also be specifically stated that these rights apply also to children. Freedom of religion must also include the right of freedom from religion.

Regarding the proposed Guiding Principles, we note that they are designed to ensure a “dialogue anchored in an understanding and respect for the rights of all Australians”. Children, of course, are Australians too.

We have no major disagreement with the first two principles as drafted, in so far as it is assumed that the respective freedoms apply to children as well as adults, and that freedom of religion is defined in the Statement of Purpose in the manner we have described.

In regard to the third principle, we disagree that religion is important or necessary for the moral guidance of our nation. Ethical principles such as compassion, honesty, and fairness may provide suitable moral guidance, independent of any religion. Furthermore we object to the term “spiritual” guidance, as there is no agreed or perhaps plausible definition of what this term means. People of course have the right to decide for themselves their basis for participation in public life and civic affairs.

Regarding the fourth principle, we agree with it as an aspiration, but we would disagree on a technical matter, in that Australia cannot be termed a secular state, given there is no constitutional separation of “church and state” as in the United States, and where the government expends billions of dollars annually in subsidies and tax concessions, for the purpose of “advancing religion”.

Regarding the tenth principle, we disagree with the last clause “and improve Australia’s moral and spiritual guidance”. It is not the role of government to be involved in such matters, even if they could be suitably defined and agreed upon, which they are not.

We have no issue with the other principles and thank the Commission for the opportunity to make this submission.

Yours sincerely

John L Perkins

President, Secular Party of Australia