The Highly Secretive Review Into Religious Freedom In Australia Is Being Accused Of "Bias"

    An LGBTI group is concerned that the panel is hearing only one side of the story.

    The Ruddock review into religious freedom is being accused of favouring the side wanting to uphold and extend discrimination against LGBTI people.

    The government's review into religious freedom was established late last year when the parliament was debating the same-sex marriage legislation.

    The panel, chaired by the former Liberal minister and now mayor of Hornsby, Philip Ruddock, convened in January and has accepted over 16,500 submissions.

    Much of the operation of the review has been kept secret, however. None of the submissions have yet been published by the panel, and none of the 12 hearings being held by the panel over the course of this month are public.

    The panel has defended this approach, saying that the private meetings allow groups to share their views "openly and honestly with the panel, in a respectful and safe environment".

    In addition to these hearings, BuzzFeed News has learned that Ruddock and his fellow panellists attended a two-day religious conference called "Freedom of Religion or Belief: Creating the Constitutional Space for Other Fundamental Freedoms" put on by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies and the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution.

    A majority of the speakers at the conference appeared to favour retaining or extending the right of religious groups to discriminate, including: the CEO of the anti-same-sex-marriage group Marriage Alliance, Damian Wyld; Archbishop Julian Porteous, who sent a flyer to Catholic schools saying same-sex marriage was "messing with" children; Professor Patrick Parkinson, who has argued against same-sex marriage and has undertaken studies on behalf of the Australian Christian Lobby; and Augusto Zimmerman, a one-time contender for Australian Human Rights Commission president who has penned several articles arguing against same-sex marriage.

    Thanks Jessica. I am featured in the front row, privileged to be a part of an excellent 2-stage conference where we…

    According to a report on the conference from Catholic Weekly, Ruddock told the conference that he wanted Australia to have "the best possible human rights protection in the world" but the panel's recommendations to that effect would likely not be accepted by parliament.

    While the Ruddock panel has met with LGBTI groups, including Australian Marriage Equality, some are concerned that by not attending a similar conference for LGBTI groups, like the Better Together conference in January, the Ruddock panel is showing bias towards religious groups favouring discrimination.

    Rodney Croome, spokesperson for just.equal, told BuzzFeed News that by attending a religious conference and not an LGBTI conference, the panel was showing its bias.

    "The Ruddock panel seems to be biased towards those sections of society that want to weaken anti-discrimination protections in the name of 'religious freedom'," he said. "The panel has attended a conference chock full of advocates who think religious freedom trumps equal opportunity, especially for LGBTI people, but it has shown no interest at all in attending a single LGBTI conference, seminar, or workshop.

    "If the panel wants its recommendations to be taken seriously it must make the same effort to hear the views and stories of LGBTI Australians as it has made to hear from proponents of so-called 'religious freedom'."

    Ruddock told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the panel is hearing from a wide variety of viewpoints.

    "The panel has so far met with LGBTI groups, academics, and secular stakeholders as well as religious groups," he said. "These meetings have enabled the panel to hear many of the diverse viewpoints that exist in the Australian community on this important topic, and the panel looks forward to continuing these invaluable meetings."

    Others have expressed concerns about the questions raised by the panel, with Guardian Australia reporting concern about the tone of the panel's questions to LGBTI groups.

    BuzzFeed News sought a list of the stakeholders that the panel had met with, but a spokesperson for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said that the list will only be released with the final report. BuzzFeed News has filed a freedom of information request for the list.

    So what is the panel actually hearing? At this point, it is difficult to say.

    The only information we have had out of the operation of the panel has been from those who have appeared before the panel and have shared it publicly.

    The review has promised to publish the submissions by the time the report is handed to government at the end of March, but the only submissions available publicly today are those that the groups themselves have made public.

    Australian Marriage Equality has said that the marriage equality legislation passed in December last year should not be changed, and has said that exemptions for religion in the Sex Discrimination Act should be repealed.

    The Freedom for Faith submission from Patrick Parkinson calls for people with "traditional views" about marriage to be protected from discrimination in the workplace from their employer, while also allowing religious schools to have "staffing policies" that allow LGBT staff to be dismissed for being LGBT.

    The Australian Christian Lobby has also called for the government to investigate the possibility of "redress" for people who have their religious freedom impinged upon, and the return of the bill put up by Liberal senator James Paterson for marriage equality that would have rolled back anti-discrimination protections and was very quickly defeated in the Senate.

    Documents tabled in parliament this week, and first reported by legal blogger Stephen Murray, revealed that Ruddock is being paid $1,440 per day of hearings held by the panel, while his fellow panelists, excluding Australian Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher, are being paid $1,152 per day.

    This fee is on top of Ruddock's parliamentary pension and wage as the mayor of Hornsby.