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The CIS vs religious freedom

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The Centre for Independent Studies has just issued a report about Australian public attitudes to religious freedom. I’m happy to say that the majority (64 per cent) attitude coincides almost exactly with the one I’ve expressed here, namely that within very broad limits, what we do and say in our own time is no business of the boss. That cuts both ways: both offering protection to people whose religious expression offends the boss, and preventing religious organizations from discriminating against employees whose beliefs or life choices aren’t consistent with the religion in question. There are limits of course, most obviously in relation to people whose job it is to represent the organization and its beliefs. But these should be the exception not the rule. Given its

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The Centre for Independent Studies has just issued a report about Australian public attitudes to religious freedom. I’m happy to say that the majority (64 per cent) attitude coincides almost exactly with the one I’ve expressed here, namely that

within very broad limits, what we do and say in our own time is no business of the boss.

That cuts both ways: both offering protection to people whose religious expression offends the boss, and preventing religious organizations from discriminating against employees whose beliefs or life choices aren’t consistent with the religion in question. There are limits of course, most obviously in relation to people whose job it is to represent the organization and its beliefs. But these should be the exception not the rule.

Given its history, (the CIS used to be the leading centre of ibertarian thought in Australia) one might imagine that the poll results would be reported as good news. But this is not the case.

Taking a corporatist line, the CIS argues that individual freedom should be subordinated to the collective rights of organizations to enforce their beliefs, even when they are engaged in in providing publicly-funded services.

The contortions required to reach this point reflect the basic problem underlying this legislation. From the point of view of the proponents, it isn’t about protecting religious belief and expression (what individuals want), it’s about establishing a special, and protected status, for religion.

That is not only contrary to public opinion, but runs directly against the spirit of our constitution, which states (s116)

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth

In line with its appalling performance on most issues, the High Court has read s116 down into insignificance. But there is nothing to stop the Commonwealth from prohibiting or severely constraining religious tests, and it should do so, particularly in relation to publicly funded organizations.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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