Morrison gov’t pushes on religious discrimination bill

August 23, 2021
A rally against the Religious Freedom Bill in Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The re-drafted Religious Freedom Bill is back on the parliamentary agenda, for a hearing by the end of the year.

As it stands, the bill would write the right to discriminate into law — on the grounds of religious freedom — in ways currently illegal under the Anti-Discrimination Act. As part of its efforts to get the Coalition to support equal marriage in 2017, the then-Malcolm Turnbull government agreed with conservative MPs who wanted a law allowing religious discrimination.

Attorney General Michaela Cash has been speaking about the new bill with relevant stakeholders, but it seems that not all are deemed equal.

Dr Meredith Doig OAM, President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, told Green Left that despite repeated requests, the organisation has not been consulted.

“We know mainstream church leaders have had meetings and consultations with federal Attorney-General Michaela Cash," said Doig.

“We have tried, on a number of occasions, to get a meeting with her to ensure our concerns are heard. However none of our letters, emails or telephone calls have been answered.”

The government will likely table the bill for debate in December.

Lobbyists, such as Freedom for Faith, want the government to fulfil its 2019 election promise to bring the bill forward.

Some Liberal MPs, such as Warren Entsch and Dave Sharma, said they will not vote for the bill if it comes at the expense of other groups ordinarily protected by anti-discrimination laws.

There is a lot at stake. The proposed legislation has the potential to adversely impact all of us.

 As with voluntary assisted dying, equal marriage, contraception and abortion rights  — all consistently supported by majorities — corporatised churches will have to risk manage the damage that giving the community greater power of choice might do to their market share.

The bill is looking increasingly like the churches' last chance to ensure their cradle-to-grave economic model and its attendant charitable and religious tax-free status endure for generations to come.

Doig was at pains to point out that it would not only impact LGBTI people — the in-built discrimination would be greater.

The #DontDivideUs campaign has set out ways in which the law, in its current draft form, might be used to discriminate.

“The laws would override all federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws in the country, as well as work health and safety laws, meaning all laws which currently protect people from discrimination would be compromised,” it said.

It lists people seeking birth control, divorced women, the mentally ill, people with a disability and essential workers as examples of those at risk if the bill were to pass.

Doig said part of the problem is that it is not designed to prevent discrimination, specifically on the grounds of someone’s religion. It is a United States-style religious freedom bill, designed to make discrimination legal on the grounds of the discriminating individual's — or organisation's — own religious beliefs or practices.

There is agreement that “you should not be allowed to discriminate against someone because of their religion,” she said.

“The problem is that the bill, in its current form, does not include protection for others who may be discriminated against because of someone else’s religious beliefs.”

Doig believes a bill that prevents discrimination on the grounds of religion is valid, just not in its current form.

The Australian Human Rights Commission agrees. It states that discrimination on religious grounds is inconsistently and insufficiently written into current laws. But it noted that “the Commission is concerned that, in other respects, the bill would provide protection to religious belief or activity at the expense of other rights”.

Whether the bill is valid and should exist in a better form, or whether it should be thrown out completely, the main bone of contention remains: so far none of the versions of the bill give everyone else protection from discrimination resulting from someone else’s religion, including their boss, school, university, medical practitioner and aged care provider.

One reason the bill has got as far as it has, is that anti-discrimination laws in each state and territory vary and take different forms. This is being used as a reason not to undertake full reform of existing anti-discrimination laws at the state and federal levels.

There is also concern the draft legislation deliberately uses generalisations in law to avoid closer scrutiny of what it would be used for.

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby called on supporters of the bill to come clean about what they really want.

Kirby, a patron of the Rationalist Society of Australia, said in Lawyer’s Weekly that advocates for “the controversial religious freedom bill [should] stop using platforms to make generalities about the laws”.

“Should we, for example, allow schools today to teach Australian students that the universe was literally created in six days? Or that Black people had their skin colour as a punishment from God? Or that left-handed people evidenced a trait of the devil? Or that women are not equal to men but subject to obedience by men?” 

Equality Australia agrees, setting out the potential impact on workplaces and healthcare. It notes that the redrafted bill would privilege certain religious views to the detriment of LGBTI people, women, minority faith communities and people with disabilities.

It and the Rationalist Society of Australia are calling for people to campaign against the bill and instead promote that public policy be based on “reason and evidence”.

The definition of religious faith is “a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof”. It seems obvious that any legislation governing all of us that is based on faith over fact is a very dangerous road to take.

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