In today’s post-Christian Australian society which is increasingly hostile toward faith, the Religious Discrimination Bill merely aims to bring religious freedom protections into line with protections for other attributes.
The Australian Parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee on the Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill is well underway.
FamilyVoice has for 50 years been calling on governments to ensure that the people of all faiths can practise their faith without the fear of persecution and/or litigation for voicing their beliefs in the public square. Whilst there is ample support for a religious discrimination bill ‘on religious principles’, many believe there are strong legal and human rights grounds for such a bill.
The bill before the House is not only a much-needed bill — especially to those of faith in our society — but also for institutions that adopt their statement of faith into their work practices and environments.
The Bill is the result of the ‘miracle’ election promise made in 2019 by Prime Minister Scott Morrison which he is now seeking to keep, albeit at the last minute of its 3-year term given that the federal elections are due by May 2022.
Australia is increasingly a hostile place for people of faith. Christians and other religious believers are being fired from their jobs, stripped of their qualifications, silenced with litigation, and excluded from the public square.
Australian research findings show that 90 per cent of Australians believe that people should have the freedom to share their religious beliefs.
The Bill in question is an important but uncharismatic legislative proposal that will extend basic protections to Christians and all religious Australians that other groups have enjoyed for decades. If enacted, the Bill will bring federal protections for religious belief and activity into line with protections that attributes like race, sex, and disability already enjoy. The Bill is a commendable first step. It is not a cure-all for religious freedom issues, and it has glaring shortcomings, but it deserves bi-partisan support.
However, the Bill has fallen short of Christian expectations. It has also encouraged a scare campaign that lacks substance.
Progressive critics have spoken out against the Bill, either calling for further watering down of the Bill, or for it to be scrapped altogether. In addition, opponents of the Bill raise the spectre of hypothetical scenarios, as noted by Australia’s Human Rights Law Alliance, where single women are refused services by doctors, same-sex-attracted students are callously expelled from school, and Christian waitstaff serve you a fire-and-brimstone lecture on your sexuality with your morning coffee. Activist lobby groups decry that the Bill will seriously harm the rights and dignity of LGBTIQA+ Australians and other minority groups and will privilege religion.
This opposition campaign is nothing more than an exercise in baseless scaremongering. It completely ignores the lived experiences of religious Australians who face hostility for their beliefs. The criticisms that have been levelled at the Bill do not stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny. There appears to be an unlevel playing field and proponents of the bill have been ‘pepper-sprayed’ by the LGBTIQA+ activists. There are countless stories of religious discrimination where Australians have been sacked, ostracised, and cancelled for their faith. These are the people that the Bill has been designed to protect and is much welcomed by FamilyVoice Australia.
The core provisions of the Bill mirror other anti-discrimination laws and constitute a very generic and long-accepted legal framework for protecting religious Australians from discrimination. The Bill will protect religious Australians from unfair treatment on the ground of their religious belief either directly by explicit discrimination, or indirectly by the imposition of a rule or requirement that would disproportionately affect people of faith.
This protection will extend to standard areas of public engagement where religious discrimination is prohibited such as education, work, provision of goods and services, accommodation etc. In short, the ‘heart’ of the Bill merely brings religious freedom protections into line with protections for other attributes. Indeed, in comparison to other attributes, religious belief and activity have less protection under the proposed Bill.
Despite this, so-called progressive critics have instigated a hostile campaign to oppose the Bill. They ignore the real stories of religious people who have faced hostile treatment and the moderate aims of the Bill to give religious belief equal protection, not privilege.
Equality Australia has criticised protections for statements of religious belief set out in clause 12 of the Bill. This clause gives narrow and qualified protection to moderate expressions of faith against discrimination complaints made under State and Territory laws. This protection in clause 12 of the Bill is modest, limited and extensively qualified. The protection afforded by the clause is so narrow that it will not protect Christians from the real threat they face — pursuit under State-based vilification legislation which is often used to shut down religious speech that activists do not like.
In recent public campaigns against the Bill, activists have raised spurious hypotheticals about the Bill, such as the suggestion that it will allow a male employer to tell his female employee that as a woman, she should be home with the children rather than at work because the Bible says so.
This is simply not the case.
The modest speech protection in the Bill does not disturb existing workplace laws or the framework of policies, procedures, codes of conduct and other rules that regulate workplace behaviour.
The Bill also has its critics from within the Government backbenches faithfully doing the work of the Opposition Party for them.
One Coalition MP has voiced his concern that the Bill privileges religious rights over the rights of other minority groups already protected under anti-discrimination law. He cautions that parts of the Bill, like clause 11, may “open the door” to religious schools to discriminate against individuals based on their sexuality. This concern is unwarranted.
Clause 11 allows religious schools to preferentially hire staff who share the religious beliefs of the school. Fairly narrow protection is given against State or Territory laws that undermine this principle. But this protection has nothing to do with sexuality and gender — it allows a school to preserve its religious character in its staff. It is designed to ensure that an Orthodox Jewish school can prioritise the hire of Orthodox Jewish teachers and not Christians. Clause 11 does not affect laws protecting sexuality and gender identity — these are protected by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and remain unchanged by the Bill.
Another example of baseless scaremongering.
The idea that the Bill allows religious Australians to discriminate against other people by privileging religious rights above others is simply untrue and is part of a well-organised scare campaign.
Apart from these peripheral differences, the Religious Discrimination Bill looks very much like any other anti-discrimination Act.
Basic Human Right
The Religious Discrimination Bill represents the keeping of an unambitious election promise by the Coalition government and is a much-needed first step to addressing a serious gap in protections for religious Australians. It is surprising that such a modest and lacklustre legislative proposal has attracted such hostile opposition. This is a general reflection of the increasing animosity towards religion from a small group of influential cultural voices and indeed the media.
The Bill may not be ‘passed’ before the election in 2022, which makes it an ‘election’ issue yet again. Whilst it is not a perfect piece of legislation, it represents a way forward towards better recognition of religious freedom in Australian law.
Overall, the Bill makes a significant contribution to the protection of religious freedom in Australia. It prohibits detrimental treatment of Australians generally on the grounds of their religion, recognises the important principle that usually religious organisations ought to be able to conduct their affairs in accordance with their faith commitments (while including clauses to balance other rights), and provides some protection against the worst excesses of State laws undermining the principles of freedom of religious speech and freedom of association. It establishes the role of an official “champion” of these important principles. While not perfect, it ought to be supported by all parties in Parliament.