Doncaster Declaration on Religious Freedom in Australia

A Fair-Go for Faith:

The Doncaster Declaration on Religious Freedom in Australia[1]


ON RELIGION. Religion has played a prominent part in Australia’s history and among its inhabitants, beginning with Australia’s First Peoples, through to British colonisation, continuing into federation, and is now indelibly part of Australia’s multi-cultural identity. The freedom to practice and promote one’s religion without interference or hindrance is paramount for a free society.[2] Religious freedom is a litmus test for basic freedoms and rights because it is cognate to and interdependent with other basic freedoms including speech, thought, conscience, association, assembly, and press.[3] Religious freedom is, however, not absolute, and can be curtailed when it is necessary to protect another person’s civil rights or to guarantee public safety. Even so, religious freedom is absolutely essential since it is the cornerstone of modern political rights and without which a free, open, pluralistic democracy cannot be maintained.[4]

ON PLURALISM. Modern Australia is a pluralistic country comprised of diverse First Peoples and various immigrant communities, encompassing a global range of nationalities, languages, customs, and religions. Australia has diversity among religions as well as within religions. Pluralism is contingent upon the acceptance of diversity with the freedom to be different without fear of reprisal. That diversity can be expressed in ethnicity, sexual identity, beliefs and values, political ideology, in religious devotion or its absence. Pluralism is the acceptance of cultural diversity, including its accommodation and protection, as well as encouraging free expression. However, pluralism can be conflictual and contentious, since it brings diametrically opposed beliefs and values into direct competition with each other. Thus, pluralism requires mechanisms for managing diversity which include a robust constitution to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, a secular government, legislation to defend diversity and safeguard basic freedoms, an independent judiciary, a free press, and institutions for mediation.

ON SECULARISM. Australia is a pluralistic country with a secular government. While there are several species of secularism, Australian secularism can be best described as a British appropriation of the US constitution’s establishment and free exercise clauses. There is no religious test or religious exclusion for holding public office. The state does not exercise control over religious communities (i.e. Erastianism) nor do religious communities exercise control over the state (i.e. Theocracy). However, the purpose of Australia’s constitutional secularism was not the sanitization of religion from the public square, but principally to avoid the intra-Christian sectarianism that characterized the British Isles and Europe. While secularism requires the separation of religion and state, it does not preclude the co-operation of the state with religious communities when they share mutual interests. Australia’s commonwealth and state governments have a long history of cooperating with religious bodies in the area of education, healthcare, charity, philanthropy, and providing pastoral care to its police and defence forces. Secularism is principally about creating space for people of all faiths and none, defining the freedoms of that space and within that space, as well as delineating its limitations. Secularism is a philosophical necessity for negotiating space for religious beliefs, diverse beliefs, and unbelief in a society no longer dominated by a single homogenous worldview. Secularism is an indispensable part of Australia’s multi-cultural identity and pluralistic ethos.



The Commonwealth, State, Territory, and Municipal governments 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 a Commonwealth, State, Territory, or Municipal government.[5]


Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief. This right includes the freedom to adopt or change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, devotional practices, worship, observance, speech, abstention, and publication.[6]


Every person and religious entity shall have the right to hold opinions of a religious nature without interference or punitive consequence. No person or religious entity shall be subject to coercion which would impair one’s freedom to adopt and express a religion or belief so chosen. No person or religious entity shall be subject to detriment, disadvantage, obligation, sanction, or denial of any benefit on the basis of religious belief or observance, whether directly or indirectly, relating to employment, professional qualification and accreditation, accommodation, education, provision of economic benefits, supply of goods, services, or facilities.[7]


Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of medium, either orally, in writing or in print, electronically, in the form of art, or through any other media of one’s choice.[8]


Religious communities and associations shall have the right to administer and operate their own houses of worship, institutions of tertiary learning, religious instruction, education, publishing houses, organized activities, and charities without interference as to their religious beliefs, curriculum, or appointment of officers therein.


Parents and guardians shall have the right and opportunity for the religious education of their children to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.[9]


The freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may only be subject to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of other persons.[10]


[1] Thanks to Mark Sneddon (Institute for Civil Society), Martyn Illes (Human Rights Alliance), Peter Sherlock (University of Divinity), Glenn Davies (Anglican Archbishop of Sydney), Michael Kellahan (Freedom for Faith), and Adel Salman (Islamic Council of Victoria) for comments and corrections.

[2] “Freedom of religion, the paradigm freedom of conscience, is of the essence of a free society.” High Court — Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Vic) (1983) 154 CLR 120 at [6] per Mason CJ & Brennan J.

[3] Jan Figel, the European Union’s first Special Envoy for religious freedom, said that “Religious freedom is litmus test of overall freedom in society and overall universal human rights so it is important to pay due attention.” James Macintyre, “Religious Freedom ‘Is a Litmus Test of Overall Freedom’ Says EU Special Envoy,” World 27 Oct 2016. Cited 27 Oct 2016.

[4] Rex Ahdar and Ian Leigh, Religious Freedom in the Liberal State (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 1.

[5] Adapted from s118, Australian Constitution.

[6] Adapted from UDHR, art. 18; ICCPR, art. 18.1.

[7] Adapted from ICCPR, art. 18.2; Senator James Patterson, “Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017.” Part VAA, Div 1, 88K, (1).

[8] Adapted from UDHR, art. 19.

[9] Adapted from ICCPR, art. 18.4.

[10] Adapted from ICCPR, art. 18.3.

  • Brian Coogan

    I think almost anybody would agree with most, or all, of these points. But my concern is more this – what if the expression of one of these freedoms, say an opinion on the value and worth of LGBT relationships, just for example, causes demonstrable harm? This is the almost universal result of research on church congregations and gay people (eg: Sowe at al, 2017; Sowe et al, 2014; Meyer 2014; full citations and papers available). The author of one of these papers (Sowe 2017) separately summarises as one of his key implications:

    “The disapproval of homosexuality on religious grounds isn’t a harmless expression of religious belief. Broad and substantial harm may ensue when religious bodies and people of faith espouse, or expose others to, anti-gay religious ideology.” This study shows harm to both LGBTI and straight people in such bodies and there is an opportunity here for constructive engagement. Good theology and good action reliably bear good fruit. Bad fruit implies bad theology and praxis, especially long term, and suggests we’ve drifted away from Jesus.

    While I love many things about the church, and strive to support it, this isn’t one of them. Unfortunately, when the church does bad things and calls them good, the population loses faith in our honesty and goodness, and then tries to restrict us – for example, getting rid of religious instruction in schools. I think that’s sad; the church has so much to offer even though we have failed at times. We need to deeply and sincerely expand our engagement with our failures in order to remain relevant, and that means with the LGBTI issue, with the child safety issue, and with the poor amongst us.