‘Treading on sacred grounds’: places of worship, local planning regulations and religious freedom in Australia

2017-10-11T04:19:38Z (GMT) by Villaroman, Noel
This thesis examines an element of the right to freedom of religion or belief – that is, the right of religious communities to establish and maintain places of worship. Under international human rights law, constructing places of worship is considered integral to the exercise of religious freedom. However, while the right to freedom of religion or belief is generally recognised by states, religious communities face different types of impediments or constraints when they seek to build, lease, acquire or extend places of worship. This thesis analyses the engagement of religious groups with local councils in Australia in their applications to construct, extend or renovate places of worship. These applications often encounter opposition from local residents who are reluctant, and even suspicious, of sharing their neighbourhood, community or street with the newly arrived and less known ‘other.’ The local councils, being the planning authority that exercises the power to grant or refuse such applications, are caught in the middle of these disputes. Thus, a part of the ‘public sphere’ has become a contested terrain between those who want to preserve the status quo of the built environment and those who desire to affirm their collective identity through new religious structures. Using the lens of international human rights law, this thesis analyses the actions of local councils in resolving these disputes and their repercussions to religious freedom. Employing 25 case studies, this thesis investigates how the right to establish and maintain places of worship is being observed, or otherwise, in the Australian local planning processes. This thesis postulates that the principles and concepts that underpin the local planning system in Australia, as they currently stand, tend to hinder the ability of religious communities to fully exercise their right to establish and maintain places of worship. Such a planning regulatory framework engenders violations of the international human rights standards applicable to religious freedom.