Australia: Will Religious Liberty Slide into Oblivion?

by Elizabeth Kendal

Australia’s ruling Liberal National coalition/Party (LNP) has been driven by a ferocious internal culture war. It is a war that pits conservatives (routinely described in the media as extreme, radical, reactionary and “far-right”) against progressives (routinely described in the media as moderates and centrists despite being as far left as the far left on many social issues).

This war has resulted in two changes of prime minister in five years. After the federal polls of 2013 resulted in the election of an LNP  conservative (with a 17 seat majority), an intra-party coup in September 2015 put the party in the hands of progressives. That government was re-elected in 2016 with one seat majority, before a counter coup led by conservatives in August 2018 left the government in chaos. Tensions were resolved (somewhat) through party’s election of a compromise candidate: Scott Morrison, a conservative who had served as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in the Abbott (conservative) government, and as treasurer in the Turnbull (progressive) government.

More critically, the war has led to the loss of two LNP Members of Parliament. One seat was lost in October through a bi-election which saw Dr Kerryn Phelps – a progressive LGBT activist, running as an independent – elected in Turnbull’s formerly safe Liberal seat. Another seat was lost on 27 November when MP Julia Banks (progressive) treacherously defected to the crossbench. Having been re-elected in July 2016 with a one seat majority, these were two seats the LNP could not afford to lose. Now, as it navigates its way to the next federal election (slated for May 2019), the LNP must proceed as a minority government.

PM Scott Morrison (l) and
Labor leader Bill Shorten (r)

Eager to humiliate the LNP ahead of the 2019 polls the opposition is doing all in its power to hinder the government’s agenda on multiple fronts. High on the list is the issue of religious freedom.

The Status of Religious Freedom in Australia

Throughout the nation’s short history, the idea that religious freedom is a fundamental and universal human right has simply been taken for granted. Consequently, no legislation has ever been enacted to protect religious freedom. As far as legislation goes, religious freedom only exists in negative terms – through exemptions in anti-discrimination law. The religious exemptions became a necessity after the law’s list of protected attributes was expanded to include attributes such as gender identity and sexual orientation.  Strip the religious exemptions away, and religious freedom is not protected.

In the absence of legislation to protect religious freedom, and despite the deference shown to “international standards” [i.e. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966)], “equality” and “non-discrimination” have come to be viewed as the benchmarks by which rights are established.

This leaves religious liberty and faith communities in a precarious position, especially now that same-sex marriage / “marriage equality” has been legalised and therefore legitimised as good and as a right. Unable to claim minority (and therefore protected) status, Christians are particularly vulnerable. The fact that devout, Bible-believing Christians doubtless are a minority and exist in large numbers within ethnic minorities is irrelevant.


Hostility quietly simmered and rose over several years as the national debate over “marriage equality” ran parallel to the federal government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse. 

Launched in November 2012 by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the Royal Commission was necessitated by the lack of justice, absence of resolution and lingering, festering pain caused by the scandal of child sexual abuse in the Church.

See: Royal Commission Timeline 

The Royal Commission investigated numerous institutions, including schools, residential care facilities, sporting clubs and detention facilities as well as religious institutions of all creeds and denominations. While all the reports were shocking, revealing a deep social sickness, it was the reports of sexual abuse in the Church – especially those alleged to have been committed or covered-up by some of the Church’s most respected figures – that captivated the attention of mainstream media and seized popular imagination. Quite apart from the enormous financial cost of redress, the primary consequence of the Royal Commission for the Church is that the Church’s moral authority has been shredded and will doubtless remain rubbish for generations to come.

The Royal Commission handed down its findings and recommendations on 15 December 2017, just one week after the Australian parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage and one month after the postal plebiscite in which 61.6 percent of Australian voters expressed support for “marriage equality”.

In a very real sense, the Australian Church has been driven into exile.

The Case of White Magazine

Publishers, Luke and Carla Burrell

On 17 November 2018, Christians Luke and Carla Burrell announced that after 12 years of successful business, White magazine would cease publication. The popular wedding magazine became economically nonviable after LGBTQ activists, who had become aware that the magazine did not feature same-sex couples, launched an aggressive campaign against it. The campaign drove off advertisers, frightened staff and included threats of physical harm (including a threat to torch the Burrell’s home).

Official statement by White magazine: Farewell (17 Nov 2018)

In Australia we take threats by LGBTQ activists very seriously. In December 2016, Eternity House – the headquarters of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) – was firebombed by an LGBTQ activist who was seriously burned in the process. Canberra police were quick to clean up the scene and whitewash the attack as a failed suicide attempt with no ideological motive, something ACL rejected from the outset. This official narrative was confirmed as false when the accused – IT manager and LGBT activist Jaden Duong – testified in court that he researched how to make a bomb and targeted ACL headquarters precisely because he disliked ACL’s “position on sexuality”. [The accused committed suicide before the trial could conclude.]

The Rise of Lawfare

In the two years since its founding in September 2016, the Australia Christian Lobby’s Human Rights Law Alliance has been involved in some 50 cases of lawfare against Christians. Initiated (generally) by leftists and LGBTQ activists, these cases involve “everyday Christians” who have been targeted for their beliefs.

ACL Managing Director Martyn Iles elaborates (Nov 2018): “There is the story of a university student who was suspended for praying with another student [see Josh’s story]; a general manager dismissed for his beliefs regarding Safe Schools [a supposedly anti-bullying programme, designed by an openly Marxist LGBTQ activist, which teaches gender fluidity, moral relativism and has been likened to LGBTQ grooming] and the case of David van Gend who was hauled in front of the Medical Board all for posting two tweets [challenging] gender ideology.”

Madeline (18)

In September 2017 (i.e. during the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite campaign) Madeline (18), a children’s party entertainer based in Canberra, updated her Facebook profile image to include the official “It’s ok to vote no” frame. For this, Madeline was immediately sacked on the grounds that her “homophobic views” comprised “hate speech” which was “detrimental to the business”.

Indeed numerous workers, including teachers and other professionals, have been disciplined, sacked or have lost their accreditation simply for expressing their position on same-sex marriage. While most cases are quickly resolved after the accused Christians receive legal advice, the trend is undeniable: intolerance is escalating.

The Case of Jason Tey

Jason Tey with his family
(WAToday, Jan 2018)

One of the most shocking and troubling cases relates to the internationally recognised, ward-winning, Perth-based wedding photographer Jason Tey.  A conservative Christian, Jason Tey was taken to the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commission after he agreed to photograph the children of a same-sex couple, but disclosed a conflict of belief in case the couple felt more comfortable hiring someone else.

As Martyn Iles notes, “[Jason Tey] did not refuse service. He offered to do the job despite his conflict. The conciliation conference failed, and he is now before Western Australia’s State Administrative Tribunal.”

Tey describes the action against him as “a kick in the guts because I work so hard for my business to be a positive influence and to provide a living for my family.”

The Emergence of Thought Crime

As Iles points out, the cases of White Magazine and Jason Tey “cross a concerning threshold”.

“They are not for overt actions which may be considered discriminatory.  They are for two things previously deemed part of our inherent freedoms – in the case of White (Magazine), for doing nothing, for their silence. In the case of Tey, for merely stating his beliefs. Nothing more than that.”

Iles warns that Australia is facing “a quiet crisis of freedom”.

“We are at the stage where anything less than total affirmation [of LGBTQ ideology] is worthy of vicious attack. We’re spiralling into an Orwellian nightmare.”

The State of Victoria

It must be noted that Ground Zero for lawfare has been the south-eastern state of Victoria. Consequently, the 24 November re-election of the Andrews Labor government (described by Andrews as “the most progressive government in the nation”) –  despite its pre-election promise to double the deficit – bodes ill for religious freedom in Victoria.

During its previous term, the Andrews-led Labor government legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide, removed religious instruction from Victorian classrooms, imposed compulsory gender ideology on state secondary colleges, and criminalised  the act of offering to assist women seeking abortion within 150 meters of an abortion clinic [see Kathy’s story].

Re-elected: Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews,
“most progressive government in the nation”

During 2016 the Andrews Labor government also tried to strip religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law so as to deny religious schools the right to select staff who uphold their values. It also tried to amend the Births, Death and Marriages Registration Act so as to enable transgender, gender diverse and intersex adults and children to alter the record of sex in their Victorian birth registration without having to undergo sex affirmation surgery and be unmarried . . . so long as they have not altered the record of their sex with the 12 months preceding the date of application. Fortunately, thanks to the tireless work of Christian lobbyists, the government came up one vote short in both cases.

It will not have that problem now, having won re-election in a landslide. Doubtless religious freedom will be back on the agenda in 2019.


In November 2017, in the wake of the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite, the Australian government commissioned a Religious Freedom Review and appointed former-MP Philip Ruddock  to lead an Expert Panel tasked with examining whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to religious freedom.  Submissions were received, and after one extension, the panel delivered its report to the Prime Minister on 18 May 2018. Seven months later, the report has still not been released.

In early October, with patience wearing thin, excerpts of the “Ruddock Review” were leaked to the media. Lacking context and detail, the leaked excerpts were “mischievously” misrepresented to create anti-Christian hysteria.

The Ruddock Review concluded that religious exemptions for religious bodies should remain in place but with constraints. Specifically, the Ruddock Review recommends that schools have a publicly available policy outlining their position and explaining how that policy will be enforced. Schools must then provide a copy of their policy in writing to all employees, prospective employees, students, prospective students, and the parents of all current and prospective students. Finally, in all they do, schools must have regard to the best interests of the child.

Christian schools were unconcerned as most have these procedures in place already. Furthermore, it is precisely because Christian schools are committed to advancing the best interests of the child, that no gay student has ever been expelled from any Australian Christian school.

However, mainstream media misreported the leak as evidence that the government plans to give Christian schools permission to summarily expel gay students and sack gay teachers. Across the land impassioned calls rang out to “end discrimination of gay children”!

As Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies rightly assessed, “The enemies of religious freedom have been hard at work. The selective and distorted leaking of the recommendations of the Ruddock Review has been nothing more than anti-religious activism masquerading as journalism.”

On 12 October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (an evangelical Christian) assured the public that the government “does not support expulsion of students from religious non-state schools on the basis of their sexuality”. Driven in part by panic and the urgent need to restore confidence, he then proposed that the LNP government could have legislation to ban the [hypothetical] practice in place within a fortnight. All that was required was that religious exemptions be removed from anti-discrimination law. Cognisant of the consequences, religious schools let out a collective gasp.

Capitalising on the community outrage whipped up by the mischievous misreporting, the Greens introduced a bill to the Senate on 16 October, to “amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to remove the exemption for religious educational institutions to discriminate against students and teachers on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identification, marital or relationship status or pregnancy; and Fair Work Act 2009 to ensure that religious exemptions from anti-discrimination provisions do not extend to educational institutions.”

The language of the Greens’ Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018 is so broad that it would include not just faith-based schools, but Sunday schools and theological colleges as well.

LNP senators objected, insisting that “existing exemptions for schools … should not be eroded unless adequate protections for religious freedom are afforded in their place”. They insisted that “religious schools and religious universities [must be] permitted to operate in accordance with the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their particular faith. To do any less would have the practical effect of depriving religious institutions of the ability to teach their beliefs and operate consistently with their ethos.”

For more details on the Greens’ Bill see:
Submission: Inquiry into Legislative Exemptions that Allow Faith-Based Educational Institutions to Discriminate Against Students, Teachers and Staff. By Mark Sneddon,
Institute for Civil Society (I4CS), 21 November 2018.

On 27 November, Liberal MP Julia Banks (progressive) defected to the crossbench reducing the Morrison-led LNP government to minority government.

On 29 November, Labor introduced a Bill to the Senate claiming the government was “dragging its heels” on the issue of ending discrimination against gay children. Labor’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 “amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to remove the capacity of bodies established for religious purposes that provide education to directly discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter

Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter warned that “Labor’s bill represents radical change because it provides no legislative ability for schools to act in accordance with their beliefs and the tenets of their faith.

“It completely removes the ability of religious educational institutions to maintain their ethos through what they teach and the rules of conduct they impose on students.”

As Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large at The Australian explains (29 Nov): “The Attorney-General lays a charge at Labor’s door — that the opposition is denying the legitimate rights of the one million Australians in religious school communities in order to grandstand on gay rights.

“The Labor bill moved by opposition Senate leader Penny Wong has a good prospect of passing the Senate, given that chamber agreed with Labor’s procedural motion for a Senate vote on Monday to pass this law as quickly as possible.

“Every sign is that the religious schools are broken and prey to radical change. Their will to -defend their centuries-old, faith-based teaching mission is compromised by their terror of being labelled homophobic, while their parental communities do not comprehend what is happening.

“There is universal agreement that the law allowing schools to remove students because of sex or gender be repealed. That is not the issue, though it is constantly presented as the issue. The real debate is about the remaining protections for religious schools.

Kelly continues: “Porter’s warning is fundamental — that under the guise of protecting gay students the national parliament is moving towards the undermining of religious education in Australia. . .

“The reality is that a critical shift in that balance [of rights] can undermine an education system whose legal protections are fragile.

“It is absurd to believe activists will not test a new legal structure.” (emphasis mine) 

For more on Labor’s Bill see:
ALP’s Bill to Severely Limit Freedom of Religious Schools and Colleges and Religious Education in Churches, Mosques, Temples, by Mark Snedden, Institute for Civil Society (I4CS), 30 Nov 2018

ALP Bill on religious schools and students
by Neil Foster, Law and Religion in Australia, 29 Nov 2018

Final Sitting Week before Christmas

Considerations deferred: 
Labor Senate Leader Penny Wong
lashes out at
Government Senate Leader
Mathias Cormann (3 Dec).

On Monday 3 December – the start of the final sitting week before Christmas – Labor’s Bill was debated in the Senate for three and half hours. It had been agreed that debate would be limited and a vote taken that would send the Bill to the Lower House. However, after securing the support of two crossbenchers, government Senate Leader Mathias Cormann successfully moved a motion to delay consideration of the Bill until 2019 on the grounds that more time is required to guarantee protections. Labor MPs were furious.

Since then, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Bill Shorten have both introduced Bills into the House of Representatives in an effort to get legislation through before Christmas. Debate continues and the situation is fluid. [For updates, see: Law and Religion in Australia]

Riding the Progressive Wave

Regardless of what Labor may or may not be able pull off this week, current polls indicate that Labor will win the next federal election (presently slated for May 2019) in a landslide. Riding the progressive wave that has swept up Australia’s urban elites, Labor (historically the party of the “worker”) will doubtless campaign on a platform of removing religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law so as to guarantee “equality” and “non-discrimination”. In the absence of any legislation to protect religious freedom, the stripping of religious exemptions would leave Christian institutions without rights and defenceless.

Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large at The Australian observes (30 Nov), “The country is changing decisively against the Liberals [conservatives].” The Morrison government might be “on the verge of a fiscal victory with a budget surplus and growth economy”, but who cares? “The fiscal issue is so yesterday’s politics.”


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


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