The politics of belief: the rise of religious freedom in Australia

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


The issue of religious freedom burst into Australian public discourse during the lead-up to marriage equality – or so it seemed when, for more than two years after the announcement in 2017 of a voluntary postal survey on same-sex marriage, religious freedom was an almost daily topic in the media. But religious freedom has been a matter of public debate in Australia since the early to mid 1800s and it is one of the few rights
included in the Australian Constitution. While issues relating to religious freedom in Australia are being increasingly addressed by scholars from various disciplines, the discourse of religious freedom has remained largely unexamined.

The constitutional protections for religious freedom are limited, and in the absence of a national human rights instrument, religious freedom (at the time of writing) is addressed in federal law only through a series of exemptions or exceptions in anti-discrimination law. Most of the research about religious freedom in Australia has, therefore, focussed on legal issues such as the Constitution and case law; the operation of religious exemptions
in anti-discrimination law; the effect of the exemptions on religious institutions,
organisations and communities, and on groups of people targeted by those exemptions, for example, women and LGBTIQ people; and on so-called moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia and sexuality. Research in the fields of politics and sociology attends to such issues as religious demography, religious diversity and social cohesion; and the interaction between religious freedom and other rights. Little attention has been paid in
the literature to the construction of the discourse of religious freedom, which has been naturalised in Australian public policy debates, obscuring the fact that it is a construction subject to change for political purposes. This thesis by publication presents four papers which seek to address this gap by examining the discourse of religious freedom in public debates over a period of 35 years.
Under the broad umbrella of critical discourse analysis, each paper uses a different method to analyse a genre of public discourse – church submissions to a public inquiry, parliamentary speeches on same-sex marriage, reports from public inquiries into religious freedom and newspaper editorials.

This thesis has identified three distinct discourses of religious freedom. The first,
‘religious diversity’, developed in the context of an increasingly pluralistic Australia, casts vulnerable religious minorities as needing improved protection against discrimination. The second discourse, ‘balancing rights’, developed in the context of expanding LGBTIQ rights and a conservative Christian minority portraying itself as besieged by rising secularism, frames religious freedom and the associated right to freedom of (religious) expression as threatened by an imbalance with ‘lesser’ equality rights. The third discourse casts belief—a category that had become impervious to challenge and interrogation—as that which religious freedom is meant to free. In the context of marriage equality, the ‘freedom of belief’ discourse effectively marginalised the voices of minority religious groups in the public discourse of religious freedom as it became a powerful tool used by the conservative right to legitimise ongoing
discrimination against LGBTIQ people and undermine progressive social politics.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Macquarie University
  • Maddox, Marion, Supervisor
Award date18 Feb 2021
Publication statusUnpublished - 2020


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