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What is ‘freedom of religion’ and does it exist in the Commonwealth of Australia? Essay Example

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What is Freedom of Religion and does it exist in the Commonwealth of Australia?


The Australian government says that it is committed to encouraging mutual understanding, tolerance and respect among the different cultures and religions in Australia and also across the region. The country claims to have fostered interfaith regional cooperation by being involved in various interfaith dialogues within the region in conjunction with Philippines, New Zealand and Indonesia. The Australian Constitution addresses various aspects of religion in a number of ways and one of the issues that are very sensitive is that of freedom of religion. This paper discusses the question as to whether freedom of religion exists in the Commonwealth of Australia or not.

According to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of religion has been defined as a principle that is in support of an individual’s or community’s right to manifest religion or belief in teaching, observance, worship and practice in public or private. The concept of freedom of religion may also be taken to include the freedom of an individual or community not to follow any particular religion or to change religion as they please. Many nations and individuals consider freedom of religion a fundamental human right that needs to be respected just like all the other human rights. Issues of freedom of religion are adequately and fundamentally addressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Hamilton, p 24).

Australia is officially referred to as the Commonwealth of Australia. There is no official state religion in the country and the people have the freedom to practice any religion of their choice as long as they do not break the law. The people of Australia also have the freedom not have a religion. They are not obliged to belong to any particular religious group or to proclaim any religion for that matter (Barzilai, p 18). The legal system in Australia purports that it treats the many different religions in Australia equally. The state has not established and does not sponsor any particular religion or church. Australian civil authority does not impose religious law (Gaustad, p 69).

Statistics revealed by Australian census reports from 1901 to 2006 show that currently, Australia is dominated by Christianity because close to 64% of Australians, as of 2007, proclaimed to be Christians. Despite this fact, less than a quarter of these people attend church on a weekly basis. There are other major religious faiths that are also practices in Australia apart from Christianity. For example, there is a great population that forms the Islam and Buddhist communities. In the 2006 census, it was found out that 18.7% of Australians declared that they belong to no religion. A further 11.2% of the people failed to answer the question as to which religion they belong to. This shows that there is freedom of religion in Commonwealth Australia since the people are free to be part of any religion that they want or not to belong to any religion at all (Eliade, p 12).

In Australia, issues of freedom of religion are addressed in section 116 of the Australian Constitution. This section safeguards the freedom of religion by prohibiting the federal government from making any laws that establish religion, impose any religious observance or prohibit the free exercise of any religion. The states are however free to interfere or establish churches under their own Constitutions as they see fit. However, no state has ever done this. Since Australia is made up of a culturally diverse society, there are bound to be diverse religions too. Individuals are therefore free to the diversity of their religious views as long as these views do not incite or encourage religious hatred (Eliade, p 45). The earliest spiritual beliefs or religions in Australia date back to over 40,000 years ago to the Indigenous Australians. Islam is said to have spread to Australia when Muslim traders and fishermen from east Indonesia visited Australia to fish and engage in trade with the local Indigenous Australians back in the 16th century. When British settlers and convicts came to Australia in 1788, they introduced non-indigenous religions to the country because most of them adhered to different Christian denominations. Traditional churches continued to be brought to Australia by the European settlers during the 1800s. These included the Baptist church, Lutheran, Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic (Hamilton, p 90).

Buddhism was brought into the country by Chinese Buddhists who were attracted to Australia in the 1850s by the discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria. In the early 1900s, 97% of Australians professed to follow Christianity. It is evident that the numerous migrations and interactions of Australians with the outside world as a result of trade, fishing, colonization and the World War led to the creation of many religions and denominations (Eliade, p 2). In the 2006 census, 12.7 million Australians were found to be Christians. The 1996 census reported that 12.6 million Australians professed to be Christians. This showed that the number of Christians in Australia fell from 71% to 64%. The number of people who are affiliated to non-Christian religions increased to 1.1 million from the previous 600,000 during the same period. These figure move to show that the Australian people are free to change their religions as they please and join others of their choice. They are also free not to belong to any religion at all (Barzilai, p 78).

Religions in Australia are basically divided into two broad categories; Christian and Non-Christian, with both categories having their own denominations. In Christianity, there is the Catholic Church, The Anglican Church, The Uniting Church, The Orthodox and The Presbyterian Church. Non-Christian religions comprise of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. There is also a large number of Australians who do not belong to any particular religion at all.


Freedom of religion has been described as the right of an individual or community to practice, manifest, observe, worship or teach any religion of their choice, in private or public, as long as they respect the law. Freedom of religion has also been explained to include the right of an individual not to belong to any religion at all (Barzilai, p 102). In the Commonwealth of Australia, there is freedom of religion since the people are allowed to belong to any religious group of their choice. There is also freedom of religion since the government does not support or establish any particular religion in favor of the others. Freedom of religion is also respected in Australia because it is not mandatory for one to belong to a religion. An individual or community can choose to be members of a religion or choose to be in no religion at all. The fact that the states are free to interfere or establish churches under their own Constitutions as they see fit should however be addressed because it is a contradiction to the freedom of religion and it may bring controversies.

Works cited

Barzilai, G. Law and Religion. USA: Ashgate, 2007. Print

Eliade, M. Australian Religions: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print

Gaustad, E. S. Faith of the Founders: Religion and the New Nation, 1776-1826. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2004. Print

Hamilton, M. A. God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print