Secularism May Be the New Religion in Australia

November 29, 2021 Updated: November 29, 2021


In the last sitting weeks of the Australian Parliament, the political landscape focuses on the Religious Discrimination Bill introduced by the Attorney-General, Senator Michaelia Cash.

The adoption of a law to protect freedom of religion was an election pledge of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the 2019 election. However, the proposed Bill, initially promoted by Cash’s predecessor, Christian Porter, hit numerous roadblocks and was shelved.

The Bill, if it becomes law, is likely to maintain limited protection for schools and charities to hire people of their faith.

But the proposed legislation has removed the controversial “Folau Clause,” which would have prevented employers from sacking employees for making religiously charged statements.

If the original clause had been retained, a company would still have been able to sack an employee if it had “an annual turnover of more than $50 million (US$35.8 million)” and proved that “an employee’s statement of religious belief caused the company financial harm.”

It is likely that the watered-down version of the bill will appeal neither to proponents nor opponents of the legislation.

It will also fail to impress those who argue that the legislation, which carves out exemptions from Australia’s obtrusive anti-discrimination legislation, disembowels the positive freedom of religion guarantee found in Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, according to which “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.”

The Religious Discrimination Bill reminds people of faith that religion is on the defence in Australia, where policymakers and trendsetters promote secularism as the new religion.

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A large wooden cross is seen outside the closed Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Earlwood in Sydney, Australia, on April 12, 2020. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

For example, Western Australia (WA), which following the state election of March 2021 is practically a one-party state, adopted the Community and Family Services Amendment Bill on Oct. 4, 2021.

This law now removes civil protection for the confidentiality of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as the Sacrament of Confession. This law provides ample evidence of the unrelenting persecution of religion in Australia by secular forces, which are dominant and triumphant.

The law seeks to implement recommendations 7.3 and 7.4 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Recommendation 7.3 nominates “people in religious ministry” as “mandatory reporters” of child sexual abuse.

According to Recommendation 7.4, “Laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge or suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.”

Recommendation 7.4 could be interpreted as referring to existing mandatory reporting laws because it does not provide for the adoption by state parliament of a law that would compel priests to disclose confidential information.

Even if this interpretation were to be regarded as an example of sophistry, the law nevertheless reveals a colossal bias in favour of secularism.

Following the adoption of the law, the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, wrote an immensely powerful pastoral letter in which he vented his frustration and expressed his disagreement with the law. He proceeded to reassure his Catholic congregations that the “priest … must not betray the confidence of the person who comes to him in the confessional.”

The purpose of the WA legislation is to ensure that children are not abused and that mandatory reporters report child abusers to the authorities.

Obviously, the effect of the legislation is to virtually abolish the Sacrament of Confession because very few penitents, who otherwise would have confessed their sins in the knowledge that anything said in confession would forever be confidential, might refrain from confiding in priests.

The reluctance of penitents to disclose their sins to a priest point to the de facto unenforceability of the legislation, a point acknowledged by Archbishop Costelloe when he says in his pastoral letter that, “with the passage of this law, it is almost inconceivable that a perpetrator would put him or herself at risk of discovery.”

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Dozens of Bishops walk the aisle to start a mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where the new Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, is officially installed in East Melbourne, Australia, on Aug. 1, 2018. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

If mandatory reporting seriously affects the legislation’s enforceability and, therefore, its effectiveness, its adoption simply represents a direct attack on a Catholic religious practice—a Sacrament—that has been in existence for an exceedingly long time.

The Sacrament of Confession originated in the 11th century. In accordance with Catholic tradition and canon law, sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” and “a sacrament is a sacred and visible sign that is instituted by Jesus to give us grace, an undeserved gift from God.”

Until a few decades ago, it was not unusual, in the weeks before Easter, to observe pious parishioners queuing up in their parish churches around the confessional box to go to confession.

Cardinal Charles Borromeo invented the confessional box in 1576, so typical for most Catholic churches, to ensure a separation between the penitent and the priest.

The leading scholarly book on religious confession is Professor A. Keith Thompson’s Religious Confession Privilege and the Common Law, published in 2011, in which he seeks to refute the claim that religious confession privilege is unprotected in the common law.

Regardless of the validity of his conclusions, it is certain that the WA Parliament has overturned the religious practice of confessional privilege—another triumph of the secular brigade.

The adoption of the WA law is but an example of the present-day discrimination against religion and it is a harbinger of future tribulations.

The Religious Discrimination Bill, if it were to become law, is a welcome, but desperate attempt to halt the inexorable slide to secularism in Australia.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).