Last Updated 24 October 2023

A continent in itself, Australia is a federal, parliamentary democracy. With a population in excess of 25.9 million, and a total area of 7,692,024 km2, it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.1

According to the 2021 Census,2 44% of those who responded were Christian, 39% were non-religious. Other religious groups included: Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, who represented a further 10% of respondents to the question.

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Constitution and government

The Australian Constitution3 (Section 116) bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion or sets a religious test for a federal public office. The section only applies to legislation made by the Commonwealth and does not impose restrictions on the states of Australia. Only Tasmania has a similar provision in its Constitution.4 The High Court has never ruled a legislative provision to be in contravention of Section 116.5Clarke, Keyzer & Stellios, 2009, Hanks’ Australian constitutional law: Materials and commentary, p. 1228

There is no charter of general rights at the national level. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected under common law as well as in international instruments to which Australia is a State Party, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Favoring Christianity

Although the government is officially secular, it continues to favor Christianity for many public ceremonies. For example, each session of parliament begins with a joint recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Various groups campaign against that practice, and have had successes at a local government level, giving some cause for optimism in the State of Victoria.6;;;

Religious institutions in general also enjoy long-standing privileges in being exempt from paying tax and from complying with laws, such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act against discrimination and Australian Charities & Not-for-profits Commission Act for transparent governance.7The Purple Economy: supernatural charities, tax and the state, Max Wallace (Australian National Secular Association, 2007)

Individuals who suffer discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief have recourse under federal discrimination laws or through the court system and bodies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Federal laws that protect freedom of religion include the Racial Discrimination Act,8 the Human Rights Commission Act9 and the Fair Work Act 2009.10 Public service employees who believe they are denied a promotion on religious grounds can appeal to the public service merit protection commissioner.

In 2019, a ‘religious discrimination’ bill was proposed that would prohibit “discrimination in certain areas of public life on the ground of religious belief or activity”. Many groups, including anti-discrimination commissions throughout the country, opposed it. While the coalition government set out to develop a second version, that too was strongly opposed and despite passing with amendments in the lower house, it was never brought to the Senate for debate before the 2022 election changed the government.11 The new Australian Labor Party (ALP) government has said it will prepare a revised bill that removes some of the contentious areas where state-based anti-discrimination laws were overridden.12

Education and children’s rights

The state governments permit religious education in public schools, generally taught by volunteers using approved curricula, to varying degrees. Public schools in New South Wales provide secular ethics classes as an alternative for students who do not attend religious instruction classes.13  In other states, there is no secular alternative to religious education, but non-religious students may opt out of the class.

In 2023, the Federal government expanded its former National School Chaplaincy Program, which provided financial support for government and non-government school communities to conduct chaplaincy services. The current incarnation of the program, renamed the National Student Wellbeing Program, no longer requires chaplains to be religious.14 The program emphasizes that wellbeing officers and chaplains must not proselytize and must “respect, accept and be sensitive to other views, values and beliefs.” Nevertheless, provision of chaplains is mostly managed through contracts with religiously-dominated organizations who appear to prefer religious candidates.

Funding inequality between public and private schools

Both the Australian federal government and state and territory governments provide funding for private schools, the great majority of which are faith-based.15According to the Private Schools Directory, of 2,933 private schools listed 1760 are Catholic, while 14 have no religious affiliation; 380 are non-denominational; 17 are inter-denominational; 2 are multifaith. Catholic schools are reported to receive up to 75% of their funding from government funds.16,different%20sectors%20that%20govern%20them

The federal government provides the largest part of the funding for private schools while the state or territory governments provide the largest part for the government-owned public schools.17

Inequitable funding of private schools by the State results in better resourced private schools attracting families who can afford the fees away from public schools to private schools.18h">ttps://;

Family, community and society

An analysis of 2016 census data and other academic surveys suggests that religious belief is on the decline in Australia with 62% of the population reporting that they did not belong to a religious organization. 71% of Australians indicated that religion was not personally important. Further, 80% of marriages are now conducted in civil ceremonies.19

A December 2022 report released by the Rationalist Society of Australia indicates that there is little to no correlation between religious conservatism and conservative social values in Australia.20 The majority of religious conservatives support abortion, assisted dying and LGBTI+ rights, according to the data. However, there is a correlation between religious conservatism and a denial of climate change.


Abortion has now been decriminalized across most of Australia. Most recently, it was decriminalized in Southern Australia in 2021.21 In December 2022, the Human Rights Law Centre called on the government of Western Australia to fully decriminalize abortion.22 It is the only State not to have fully decriminalized abortion.

In 2022, Western Australia’s government announced that it planned to progress legislative amendments to repeal the criminal offense of abortion. However, it will still remain an offense for an unqualified person to perform or assist with an abortion.23

Assisted dying

Assisted dying is permitted in all States of Australia. The December 2022 repeal of the Andrews Law (1997) paved the way for the territory governments to legislate on euthanasia after a 25-year ban.24

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Although the Constitution does not enshrine a bill of rights, the rights to freedom of expression and association are protected by virtue of Australia being a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In practice, there is a free press and citizens enjoy a culture that generally respects freedom of expression.

As in many parts of the world, the polarization and claims of discrimination or being silenced have increased on both sides of several topics. For instance, there was strong debate about the right of a high profile sports person to publicly declare that “homosexuals (among others) are bound for hell”. The person’s contract was canceled and a court case ensued where they claimed religious discrimination as the statement was part of their religious belief. The case was settled before trial, avoiding the setting of a legal precedent.25

According to Human Rights Watch’s 2023 World Report:

“In April, the state of New South Wales introduced new laws and penalties specifically targeting climate protesters, punishing them with hefty fines and up to two years prison for protesting without permission. […] New anti-protest laws passed in the states of Victoria and Tasmania also invoke severe penalties for non-violent protest.”

‘Blasphemy’ laws in the states

While there is no Commonwealth crime of ‘blasphemy’ or blasphemous libel, Tasmania has Criminal Code offenses for both, and similar crimes may yet exist in common law in other states.

The English common law offenses of ‘blasphemy’ and blasphemous libel with unlimited penalties were received into the law of the Australian colonies and territories at establishment, and became offenses in the states and territories of the Commonwealth of Australia when the federation was formed in 1901. They may yet exist wherever they have not been specifically abolished.

With the introduction of criminal codes, both offenses were definitively abolished and not replaced with code laws in Queensland in 1899, and in Western Australia in 1913. The Australian Capital Territory abolished blasphemous libel, but not ‘blasphemy’, in 1983. The Commonwealth of Australia abolished both offenses in 1995, but this abolition does not impact on state and territory law. Tasmania abolished both common law offenses in 1924 and replaced them with code offenses. New South Wales has not abolished the common law offenses and in the Crimes Act 1900 specifically recognises the existence of the common law offense of blasphemous libel.

Consequently, the common law offenses of ‘blasphemy’ and blasphemous libel may yet exist in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and the Northern territory, and the common law offense of ‘blasphemy’ in the Capital Territory. Code offenses of ‘blasphemy’ and blasphemous libel exist in Tasmania.

Religious “vilification” laws

The federal government and several states have passed laws outlawing “racial vilification” and the states of Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria have extended those laws to also outlaw “religious vilification”.26 There is debate about the extent to which these laws only proscribe incitement to hatred, or whether they may be used to suppress non-inciting speech about religious beliefs and practices.

The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act27 passed by Victoria in 2001 (Section 8) states: “A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.” “Ridicule”, even if “severe”, may set a low bar for “vilification”.

The Victorian Human Rights Commission asserts that “being critical of a religion” or “behaviour that offends people of a particular race or religion, but does not encourage others to hate, disrespect or abuse racial or religious groups” are examples of behaviour which are “not likely” to fall under the scope of racial or religious

Racial and religious “vilification” laws have been used a number of times, sometimes in circumstances that have drawn mixed reactions, with opponents saying that with regard to the religious sections of these laws, they may restrict free expression about religious beliefs that should not be classed as “incitement to hatred.”;;


5 Clarke, Keyzer & Stellios, 2009, Hanks’ Australian constitutional law: Materials and commentary, p. 1228
7 The Purple Economy: supernatural charities, tax and the state, Max Wallace (Australian National Secular Association, 2007)
15 According to the Private Schools Directory, of 2,933 private schools listed 1760 are Catholic, while 14 have no religious affiliation; 380 are non-denominational; 17 are inter-denominational; 2 are multifaith.
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