Earlier this year, Australians were shocked to learn that some publicly funded Catholic hospitals were using religion as a justification to refuse services such as birth control or abortion - even to victims of rape.
The revelation that a government-funded health provider could opt out of providing essential services on the basis of faith clashed with the image held by many of Australia as a broadly secular nation, where matters of religion generally play little role in public life.
After all, our constitution bars the federal government from establishing a state church, and forbids Parliament from discriminating against anyone on religious grounds.
Yet while Australians enjoy legally protected freedom of religion - the ability to practise their faith without discrimination-the right to freedom from religious influence is, it would seem, not always accorded.
It is in this context that the first Secularism Australia Conference will be held in Sydney next month. A range of high-profile speakers will argue that religion has too much influence on Australian government policies, institutions and civic life, and make the case for secular reform.
Further examples of the encroachment of religious perspectives into the public sphere are myriad, and many will be discussed at the conference.
To take just a few: A review this year found that government funding to Catholic schools increased by almost twice as much as funding for public schools between 2012 and 2021. Religious schools still have the legal right to expel LGBTQI students and sack LGBTQI staff.
Students in NSW public schools who opt out of religious classes are forbidden from learning the curriculum while the lessons are being held. And advocates say chaplains in the defence force are threatening the mental health and wellbeing of the military's workforce by blocking much-needed reforms.
Other instances are symbolic, but no less prevalent. Prayers are still uttered at the beginning of most government business at the federal, state and local level, for example.
These are generally Christian, privileging believers of that faith over others (and over those who have no faith).
More concerning are the ongoing attempts by religious conservative groups to influence Australian politics.
In 2022, the ABC reported on the "infiltration" of Liberal Party branches by Pentecostal groups in Victoria. It followed a similar attempted takeover of South Australian Liberal Party branches by Pentecostals in 2021. These groups are well organised and well funded, and some of them are on a mission (they would say from God) to roll back fundamental freedoms such as marriage equality, the decriminalisation of abortion, and LGBTQI rights.
It is clear from these examples that religion plays a far more significant role in civic life than many Australians would find appropriate. Secular Australia believes there is a real desire in the community for a true separation of church and state, and a need for secularism to be embraced at the national level.
So, what would a secular state look like, and why is it worth fighting for?
First, it's important to emphasise that secularism is not "anti-religious". Rather, it simply advocates that the basic structure of our government and civic institutions should be neither religious nor atheist. This means freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.
Second, secularism entails that religious organisations do not receive special privileges over non-religious organisations.
They shouldn't receive disproportionate government funding, nor should taxpayer-funded organisations be exempt from labour laws or anti-discrimination legislation. No one should be denied public healthcare, essential services or the right to an education on the basis of their - or someone else's - faith.
Finally, a truly secular state would be more reflective of contemporary society. Fifty years ago, more than 86 per cent of Australians were Christian, and only 7 per cent had no religion.
Fast forward to the 2021 census, and the proportion of people who report an affiliation with Christianity has fallen to 44 per cent, while almost 40 per cent now say they have no faith.
But our public institutions have failed to keep up with this changing reality. A secular state would be more representative of modern Australia and more responsive to the needs of today's citizenry.
Equal rights for all, an end to discrimination and enhanced democracy: these are the goals that Secularism Australia Conference promotes. They will benefit all Australians - believers, non-believers and agnostics alike.
- Michael Dove is chair of the Secularism Australia Conference organising committee and member of Humanists Victoria.
- The Secularism Australia Conference will be held on Saturday, December 2 at the NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre in Surry Hills.