Australians will be able to make statements of religious belief under the protection of federal law in draft changes to a bill that sparked a warning about the risk to people who lose their jobs or suffer hurt because their sexuality is at odds with someone’s faith.
The federal government ended months of uncertainty by releasing a draft law to shield people who make a statement of belief as long as it is made in good faith, is in line with the teachings of their religion, is not malicious and does not vilify or harass.
Australians will be able to make statements of religious belief under the protection of federal law in draft changes to the Religious Discrimination Bill.Credit:Getty
Prime Minister Scott Morrison plans to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill to Parliament personally within days to deliver on a pledge three years ago to protect religious freedom, but he faces major barriers in the Senate after LGBTQI activists called for a halt to the plan.
The revised bill includes a new provision to protect the right of religious schools to positively discriminate in their employment practices, with a clear intention to override state laws, including those being pursued by the Victorian government.
Equality Australia chief Anna Brown said the statement of belief provision would license “new forms of discrimination” by overriding state and territory laws and allowing remarks that would currently breach those laws.
“All of the attempts to override state and territory and federal discrimination laws are extraordinarily unprecedented and extraordinarily dangerous in a democratic society like Australia,” Ms Brown said.
The stronger protections against discrimination being considered in Victoria are expected to be made to the state’s Equal Opportunity Act, one of the laws explicitly named in the new federal bill to be overridden.
The final draft confirms the removal of a clause that would have stopped employers acting against workers who make statements of faith that offend others, a case that arose when Rugby Australia terminated its contract with Israel Folau after he said homosexuals would go to hell.
The draft includes broader safeguards, however, that will intensify arguments about faith and sexuality while a Senate inquiry considers the details before a final vote next year.
The bill says a statement of belief does not constitute discrimination under other federal law and a list of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws already in place in every state and territory.
The statement of belief has to be one of religious belief that is genuinely held and made in good faith and part of religious doctrine, although it could also be the statement of an atheist.
The new safeguard does not apply if the statement is malicious or something that a reasonable person would consider a threat, or would intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group.
A note to the draft bill says a “moderately expressed religious view that does not incite hatred or violence” would not constitute vilification.
A separate section protects religious bodies such as schools from claims of discrimination if they make decisions to hire or fire workers such as teachers.
“A religious body does not discriminate against a person… by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion,” the draft says.
“Religious educational institutions must have a publicly available policy in relation to conduct in the context of employment.”
A note to the draft says the conduct might still breach the Sex Discrimination Act. While the government said teachers could not be sacked on the grounds of their sexual identity, Equality Australia disputed this and warned that LGBTQI teachers could be removed on religious grounds.
The draft also says this protection for religious bodies does not cover religious hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers and disability service providers.
Liberal MPs spoke up in a tense meeting of the Coalition party room on Tuesday to warn against any move to rush the Religious Discrimination Bill through Parliament when the changes have split church and gender equality advocates.
The meeting ended with Coalition MPs expecting the bill to be introduced in the next few days before it is debated by Labor and decided in the lower house next week, clearing the way for a Senate inquiry over summer and a final vote next year.
The Liberal MP for Leichhardt in northern Queensland, Warren Entsch, said he did not see the need for the bill and questioned provisions including the defence for statements of faith.
Fellow Liberals Bridget Archer, Angie Bell, Andrew Bragg, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman also expressed their concern.
Mr Zimmerman told the meeting it would be better to refer the bill to an inquiry led by a joint committee so MPs had a say in the outcome rather than Senators alone, and he warned against putting the bill to a vote in the House of Representatives before the review.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash told the meeting the effect of the bill was to allow freedom of speech but not discrimination, arguing that a Catholic could tell someone he or she did not believe in divorce but could not act on that by using it as grounds to sack someone.
In another example, Liberals who were briefed on the bill said atheists would be protected if they told people of faith they would not go to heaven.
However, a nurse who told a patient that he or she would go to hell because of their sexuality would not be protected because this would involve a breach of professional standards, according to the briefing. This was a change on earlier drafts sought by Liberals MP including Katie Allen, a pediatrician.
Most Viewed in Politics
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article