The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) this week released its long-awaited report into the Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century Project (FRB project). It largely consists of a discussion on the state of religious practice in contemporary Australia, and contains only minor recommendations.

The report, prepared by Australian Multicultural Foundation for the AHRC, is a culmination of an extensive consultation process with churches, religious and secularist organisations that commenced in September 2008.

The consultation had a chequered beginning due to unfortunate comments made by then AHRC Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma, who launched the FRB project with a speech comparing religious freedom and human rights to oil and water – substances that do not mix.

In a follow-up media interview Mr Calma commented on “evidence of a growing fundamentalist religious lobby, in areas such as same-sex relationships, stem-cell research and abortion”.

The initial project discussion paper contained such loaded questions as “Is there a role for religious voices, alongside others in the policy debates of the nation?” and “How can faith communities be inclusive of people of diverse sexualities?”

The AHRC’s suggestions that it may be inappropriate for some members of the Australian community to advocate in the public square and that somehow religion and human rights were incompatible were breathtaking. A cursory glance at history reveals Christian people in particular at the forefront of the great human rights causes such as the abolition of slavery and civil rights.

As a follow-up investigation to AHRC’s (then HREOC) 1998 report, “Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief”, which recommended the enactment of a federal Religious Freedom Act with religious anti-vilification provisions, there were real concerns in the Christian community about what the real agenda of the FRB project might be.

Fortunately those concerns have not been realised in the final report of the FRB project. It recommends further work on educating students about religion, reasoning that “education, beginning in primary and secondary schools and continuing into tertiary institutions, would increase understanding and knowledge and, in so doing, reduce discrimination and prejudice”.

The report outlines a range of views put to the project team by churches, religious and secularist groups on a number of contested topics including the National Schools Chaplaincy Program, faith-based schooling, sexuality, abortion and euthanasia. A positive outcome of the FRB project was that no formal recommendations were made on any of these issues.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace received a special note of thanks in the final report for assisting with organising additional consultations with church leaders. ACL would also like to thank the many Christian groups and individual Christians for engaging with the FRB project to ensure that it did not recommend legislative changes that would adversely impact religious freedom.