LGBTIQ advocates have criticised the Morrison government’s draft religious discrimination laws, which were unveiled today.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the government’s draft Religious Discrimination Act is similar to other existing anti-discrimination laws, like those covering age, race and disability.
He said the laws would ensure religious people were protected from discrimination, in a “necessary and difficult balancing exercise”.
The laws have a stated aim of “eliminating, so far as is possible, discrimination against persons on the ground of religious belief or activity in a range of areas of public life.”
But reacting to the draft bill on Thursday, Equality Australia spokesperson Anna Brown warned the laws “go too far” and would “enshrine religious exceptionalism” into law.
“The bill gives new privileges to people of faith, while overriding existing protections from discrimination for others,” she said.
“Laws must apply equally to everyone. We must not go backwards or remove any protections from harmful behaviour which have already been achieved – at great cost.
“It’s really disappointing that the Government has drafted a series of special measures for religious individuals and organisations without speaking to those who could be targeted if those measures are passed.”
Bill overrides a Tasmanian law outlawing offensive conduct
Reacting to the draft bill, LGBTIQ advocates have slammed an explicit weakening of a state law unique to Tasmania.
The federal bill overrides a clause in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act to allow offensive language if religious in nature.
The draft bill’s explanatory notes explicitly state the intention to override the Tasmanian law “given its broad scope and demonstrated ability to affect freedom of religious expression.”
But Equality Tasmania spokesperson Rodney Croome said this was incorrect and Porter has reneged on a promise not to interfere with the existing state law.
“Canberra is directly interfering to weaken a Tasmanian human rights law that protects vulnerable people,” he said.
“A significant proportion of complaints under this section are from people with disability. So Canberra is directly weakening protections for them, as well as for women, LGBTI people and anyone else who falls foul of traditional religious doctrines.”
Christian Porter has suggested no religious conduct will be considered “reasonable if it’s malicious or if it harasses, vilifies, incites hatred or violence or advocates for the commission of a serious criminal offence.”
Croome said in 2018 Tasmania’s Supreme Court found such laws do not breach the right to religious freedom.
How would the laws affect Israel Folau-type cases?
Under the laws, large businesses would not be able to restrict their employees from expressing religious beliefs outside of work.
But to do so, for example in the case of Israel Folau’s social media post, a business would have to prove the conduct would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship”.
Equality Australia’s Anna Brown said this section of the religious discrimination law “explicitly privileges religious beliefs over secular beliefs.”
“In a multicultural free country like Australia, this is simply unacceptable,” she said.
“It introduces a carve-out to stop employers from upholding their inclusive, non-discriminatory policies.
“[For example] when staff express negative religious beliefs about LGBTQ people outside the workplace, such as on social media.
“Our laws need to treat all beliefs equally, regardless of whether they’re based on religion or a person’s individual moral view.”
Objections to the provision of health services
With regard to health services, the proposed law would stop bosses from imposing rules on medical staff if they “have the effect of restricting or preventing” the staff from “conscientiously objecting” to providing the health service on the basis of their religious belief.
But the draft bill clarifies rules on health practitioners “are reasonable if necessary to avoid an unjustifiable adverse impact on the person imposing the rule or any other person who would otherwise be provided the health service.”
Earlier this month, an Australian Christian Lobby conference heard religious pharmacists should be be able to refuse service to transgender people.
Equality Tasmania’s Rodney Croome warned this provision could also see paediatricians refusing to vaccinate the baby of a single mother, gynaecologists refusing to see married lesbian couples or a GP refusing a gay man a prescription for HIV prevention drug PrEP.
Labor criticises ‘secrecy’ around religious discrimination bill
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the legislation would be subject to further consultation before settling on a final bill.
Submissions responding to the draft legislation can be made through the website here.
Porter has indicated he wants to introduce the religious discrimination bill to parliament by October, and pass it by Christmas.
But Labor has accused the government of “secrecy” around the bill. Despite two years of internal Liberal party debate, Australians now have “just weeks” to scrutinise the bill, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said.
“It’s apparent from some of the public reaction already that not very many Australians have been consulted,” Dreyfus said on Thursday.
“Almost no religious organisations have been consulted. LGBTI groups do not appear to have been consulted.
“It’s time the debate the Government’s been having internally be allowed to occur with the whole Australian community.”
On Thursday night, the Greens warned the religious discrimination bill must not be a “Trojan horse” allowing hate speech and discrimination.
“The far-right of Morrison’s party are still trying to get their way, chipping away at the rights of LGBTIQ+ people and other minorities,” Greens LGBTIQ spokesperson Janet Rice said.
“Any Bill that comes to the parliament must ensure all Australians are treated equally.
“The bill should only act as a shield for people of faith, not as a sword to be used against other minority groups.”
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