The Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tom Calma, has called for as many Australians as possible to become involved in a discussion about the current state of freedom of religion and belief in the country launched two months ago, and aimed at gathering opinion by the end of January next year.
He made the remarks at the launch of the the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 'Freedom of religion and belief in the 21st century' Discussion Paper in Canberra seven weeks ago, and the Commission is keen to encourage further submissions by the deadline of 31 January 2009.
The Australian Human Rights Commission was formerly called the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The Commission was established in 1986 by an act of the federal Parliament. Ir is an independent statutory organisation and report to the federal Parliament through the Attorney General.
“The fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief is protected by a number of international treaties and declarations,” explained Commissioner Calma. “It encompasses freedom of thought on all matters and the freedom to demonstrate and express our religion and belief individually, with others, in private or in public.”
“The intent of this discussion paper is to examine and report upon the extent to which this right can be enjoyed in Australia today by drawing from practical everyday experiences and observations,” said Mr Calma. “This is easy for some, while others feel religion and human rights don’t mix, like oil and water.”
In calling for submissions from the public, the Commissioner pointed out that the intersection of religion and belief with human rights is illustrated daily in our news headlines.
“The involvement of religious institutions in school curriculums and practices, religious and ethical concerns about scientific research, the status of Muslim communities in society since the events of September 11 2001, the involvement of religion in debates about homosexuality or abortion, and our politicians declaring their faith on the campaign trail – these are just some of the stories that involve us every day at the intersection of religion and belief with human rights,” said Commissioner Calma.
“Given that these issues are continually in the headlines, it is timely that they be comprehensively evaluated in terms of their impacts on the practice, expression and perception of religion and spirituality in Australia,” said Mr Calma. “A better understanding of these issues and the way they influence, and are influenced by, our attitudes and laws will assist us as to advance our nation’s social and cultural prosperity.”
Commissioner Calma emphasised that gaining a comprehensive understanding of these issues could not be achieved merely by consultation with academics, religious institutions and government.
“To achieve the intention of our discussion paper, we need to hear from as many people as possible, from as many walks of life, with as many different experiences to share as we can.”
Electronic submissions by 31 January 2009 are encouraged by visiting www.humanrights.gov.au/frb 
With thanks to Doug Hynd