The head of the religious freedom review, Philip Ruddock, has said the review panel found “very little hard evidence” of religious discrimination in Australia.
Ruddock told ABC Radio on Friday that the review panel had heard from a wide range of people and received thousands of submissions but could not widely substantiate concerns about religious freedom.
“We found there was far less contest that you might expect,” he said.
“We didn’t find a lot of evidence of actual material discrimination that would be of concern.
“But where we did we brought forward some recommendations to help deal with it.”
Ruddock said it was “not an exaggeration to say that people are concerned that changes to the law may limit their capacity to practise their faith and teach their ethos” but Australia had international obligations to balance competing human rights, including freedom from discrimination.
“Freedom of religion gives you certainly protection to have your beliefs, but it doesn’t mean you can infringe other fundamental human rights,” he said.
LGBTIQ teachers and staff in religious schools
But Ruddock played down accounts given to the review panel of students who were “forced to leave” a school that wasn’t supportive of them coming out, and accounts of schools “terminating the employment of staff on the basis of their sexuality”.
“There was a great deal of concern but it was not on the basis of hard evidence that within schools for instance students were discriminated against, that within issues of faith-based schools staff were being dismissed,” he said.
“We did come across examples where that had happened but you usually found that when those issues were live and worked through, where there was a significant degree of contest, most people were able to live together without these matters of great moment.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday claimed Australians of faith “feel that the walls are closing in on them” and pledged to introduce a new Religious Discrimination Act, but such legislation would be unlikely to pass before next year’s federal election.
LGBTIQ advocates cautiously welcomed the proposal, but warned the new legislation mustn’t wind back existing federal and state laws protecting LGBTIQ people from discrimination.
Other changes proposed in the religious freedom review include amending the Charities Act to ensure that groups who state marriage is between a man and a woman are not disqualified from charitable status, and exempting religious schools from providing facilities to same-sex couples for weddings.