If recent news in New Zealand is anything to go by, it appears that it is easy for some human rights advocates to forget that religious freedom is itself a fundamental human right.

The New Zealand Herald today reports that the NZ Human Rights Commission is likely to back down on plans to update its 2004 report, Human Rights in New Zealand Today, with text that misinterprets and narrows the scope of religious freedom.

The Commission’s new draft statement reportedly claims that “New Zealand is a secular state with no state religion”, and that “matters of religion and belief are deemed to be a matter for the private, rather than public, sphere”.

Rightly, churches in New Zealand have taken issue with the draft text, pointing out that the majority of New Zealanders hold a religious conviction, and that restricting religion to the private domain is contrary to the ethos of all the world’s major religions.

Race Relations Commission  Joris de Bres sought to quickly hose down the controversy by clarifying the Commission’s intent and promising to pursue more appropriate wording. He said that: "There wasn't any intention to limit or to privatise religious belief. It's more about the fact that it's a matter of personal choice and not of state direction, and that there is a strong tradition of religious diversity in New Zealand”.

This incident is eerily reminiscent of a recent episode in Australia involving our own (now former) Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tom Calma, who claimed, when launching the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century’ project,* that human rights and religion were like oil and water, the implication being they are incompatible.

There was also the example of a human rights expert, appointed by the Victorian government to examine the exceptions and exemptions in the state’s equal opportunity law, arguing that religious organisations should lose their right to employ like-minded staff when their activities moved from the private (i.e. worship, prayer) to the public (i.e. acts of service).

It seems that some human rights advocates need to be reminded far too often that freedom of religion, as articulated under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, extends to the public manifestation of faith, either individually or in community with others. They need to work harder to understand and more genuinely respect the rights and beliefs of religious adherents.

It is disappointing that in two countries, which historically have been positively shaped by the Christian ethic, their preeminent human rights bodies have sought to marginalise religious beliefs from being expressed in the public square.

*The Australian Human Rights Commission plans to publish its final report from the ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century’ project in mid to late 2010.