Uphold rainbow rights and kill the religious privilege bill

February 19, 2020
Sydney protest against the religious discrimination bill in August 2019. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Mardi Gras season is upon us, a good time to reflect on the government that is about to table a package of bills that, if passed, would effectively undermine the rights of all LGBTIQ people as payback for marriage equality.

The Pentecostal prime minister and his ultra-conservative cronies have taken it upon themselves to put together a piece of legislation that not only takes aim at the rainbow community but also undermines the rights of all minorities.

Indeed, when the same-sex marriage vote came before the lower house, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other Liberal-National religious right-wingers left the chamber — a sure sign of not wanting to vote with the majority, but also avoiding later fallout for doing so.

The Religious Discrimination Bill is cruel. The MPs involved are riding in like religious crusaders of old, their ultimate goal to wind back the clock to consolidate what they perceive as the dwindling power of straight, white, Christian men.

While there is opposition from minor parties and independents, the Labor Party is still dragging its feet.

This is despite recent Community Action for Rainbow Rights rallies that show there is widespread opposition to the bill (even the Satanists attended).

Withdrawing medical services

There is a lot not to like about the religious privilege legislation. One of its most irksome provisions is the “health practitioner conduct rule” that allows doctors, midwives, nurses, pharmacists and psychologists to conscientiously object to providing a particular health service.

Medical professionals would be able to refuse to undertake medical procedures if they rub their religious sensitivities the wrong way. This would include abortion, gender reassignment surgery, hormone therapy and contraception, which would impact on LGBTIQ people and all women.

The bill portrays a patient’s health service requirement as a form of indirect discrimination being imposed on the health practitioner, to the disadvantage of their religious beliefs. In other words, the patient actually discriminates against the doctor in asking for help.

This is the second drafting of this rule, as there was much outcry over the first version which allowed for a much broader range of people working in health to refuse medical services on religious grounds to specific individuals.

Undermining protections

Another major reason to be concerned about the religious right’s crusade is that the bill provides that “statements of belief do not constitute discrimination”.

That’s right, Israel Folau has been absolved.

This means that an individual can make any statement that would otherwise constitute a breach of federal or state anti-discrimination laws, if they can prove that the comment is in line with the beliefs of the religion they adhere to.

At the federal level, this law would undermine the anti-discrimination framework that governments have been building up since the 1970s – leaving the way open to wind back anti-discrimination laws covering sex, gender, race, age and ability.

At the same time, the Morrison government is leaving the section within the Sex Discrimination Act that allows religious schools to expel students or sack teachers, based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sanctified discrimination

“Religious freedom does not mean freedom to visit harm upon others in the name of one’s own religion,” Joanna Abraham from Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

“The Religious Discrimination Bill legislative package is not consistent with international human rights law,” she continued. It “creates the anti-human rights situation, whereby discrimination will be permitted on the basis of religious faith”.

Abraham also made clear that instead of the provisions within the bill undermining protection laws for the benefit of religion, “where state anti-discrimination legislation aligns more closely with international human rights law”, it should override any federal measures in place.

Abraham is the co-chair of the ALHR Human Rights Act Subcommittee. She asserts that if Morrison was serious about upholding the right to freedom of religion, he would legislate for a bill that protects all rights under federal law, not enact one that upholds this right over all others.

“In ALHR’s view, the human right to freedom of religion would best be protected by a federal human rights act, or bill of rights, and the religious discrimination legislative package should not be passed.”

Kill the bill

Morrison wants to take us back to the 1950s so he and his mates can freak out about Elvis Presley gyrating his hips in public, the rebel without a cause James Dean remains closeted and the Stonewall riots have not even been conceived of.

It is this that led Pride in Protest to attempt to pass a motion at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras annual general meeting last November which, if successful, would have banned the PM from attending the parade. Although unsuccessful, the group made its point.

When you look at how MPs of the religious right and some – but by no means all – followers of the Christian faith managed to build up enough support for these bills to even be considered, you will find that their religious freedoms crusade started a long time before the ban on equal marriage was removed.

A month before Malcolm Turnbull announced the Ruddock Religious Freedoms Review, a parliamentary committee on freedom of religion in Australian law delivered its interim report.

It found that “Commonwealth protection for freedom of religion or belief is limited”. Although it accepted that there was “a history of common law protection for fundamental rights, including religious freedom”, it found evidence of “a slow erosion of this general freedom”.

It recommended strengthening “protections for religious freedom … a specific religious freedom act and a religious discrimination act, or a variation or combination of these.”

It is time to make it known to your local federal Labor representative that they stop licking their post-election wounds and do what they are supposed to do: stop the Liberals from turning this nation into a bigot’s wonderland.

[Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer for Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]

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