Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a new law to outlaw religious discrimination in the government’s response to the religious freedom review, but protections for LGBT students will be delayed until the second half of 2019.
Morrison released the long-awaited Philip Ruddock-headed Religious Freedom Review on Thursday and announced the government backed all 20 of its recommendations in its response, among them plans to establish a dedicated Religious Discrimination Act to protect people from being discriminated against on the grounds of their religious belief.
“Those who think that Australians of religious faith don’t feel that the walls have been closing in on them for a while, they’ve clearly not talking to many people in religious communities or multi-cultural communities in Australia,” Morrison said.
“It’s about protecting Australians and an Australian’s right to believe in what they want to believe.”
Morrison said he would look to pass the laws before the federal election – which will be held no later than May – and said it would support multiculturalism in Australia given high rates of religious belief in various migrant communities.
“The protection of religious freedoms is synonymous with our identity and it’s particularly relevant in Australia, because of our incredibly diverse multicultural society,” he said.
The federal government will also amend other laws to enshrine freedom of religion alongside the right to non-discrimination, and appoint a “religious freedom” commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission to handle complaints, despite the Ruddock review recommending such a role was unnecessary.
Labor frontbencher Mark Butler said his party supported a Religious Discrimination Act in principle, but he said “the devil would be in the detail” and the government had delayed the release of the review for months after receiving it in May.
“We could have been debating over the course of 2018 the recommendations, but instead we’ve got the review dropped out on the eve of Christmas in the shadow of a federal election,” he told ABC Radio.
Anna Brown from the Human Rights Law Centre and incoming head of new lobby group Equality Australia said LGBTIQ advocates would carefully consider the government’s response to the review but warned “attempts to protect religious freedom should not undermine the right to equality for other groups in society.”
“We support a Religious Discrimination Act in principle, but would need to see the detail of what the Morrison Government is proposing,” Ms Brown said in a statement.
“No one should be turned away or mistreated because of their faith.
“However, we remain deeply concerned that attempts to legislate to protect religious freedom will come at the expense of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.”
Just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome blasted the government’s pledge to create “national consistency” on discrimination and vilification laws, saying it would undermine protections in his home state of Tasmania.
“[‘National consistency’] is code for watering down existing protections, especially in Tasmania,” Croome said.
“The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act has the strongest protections in the nation, with very few religious exemptions for discrimination and none for vilification.
“Simply holding a religious belief should not set someone above the law, exempt them from anti-discrimination legislation or give them permission to engage in hate speech.”
LGBT student protections delayed
Contentious legislation to remove religious schools’ ability to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students would be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission in a bid to “produce specific drafting that may be capable of bipartisan support,” Attorney-General Christian Porter said.
Since October, the Coalition and Labor have been unable to agree on the details of legislation to remove a Sex Discrimination Act exemption allowing religious schools to discriminate against gay students.
But the ALRC wouldn’t report until the second half of 2019, delaying any action until after the federal election next year.
Ms Brown said “misinformation” had clouded that debate as the two parties put forward competing bills to address the issue.
“Schools already have the ability to set reasonable rules and standards of behaviour to uphold their religious ethos both for students and in employment,” Ms Brown said.
“[Labor’s] bill simply removes an exemption that allows religious schools to discriminate against students. It’s that simple.
“We don’t need an inquiry to tell us that kids and teachers should be protected at school.”
In its report, the Ruddock review panel wrote that many faith-based schools said during consultations they would not expel same-sex attracted students.
“However, the panel also heard that some instances of discrimination did occur against students in schools and that students were forced to leave as the school was not supportive of them coming out,” the report states.
“The Panel heard accounts of LGBTI youth who felt bullied and unsupported at religious schools, particularly where schools adopted a stance that was less accepting of homosexual relationships generally.”
The review panel also reported accounts of religious schools “terminating the employment of staff on the basis of their sexuality, despite the staff not openly discussing those issues in the school.”
“LGBTI communities spoke of the stress and mental health pressures placed on teachers and other staff who felt compelled to hide important aspects of their identity from colleagues and students, and who felt they were prevented from full participation in the school community,” the report stated.
“The Panel heard of individuals ‘editing’ the way they presented themselves to others, depending on the context.
“Examples were given of teachers who were ‘out’ in all other aspects of their life, but not ‘out’ at work, because they were unsure whether their employer would be accepting, or would choose to dismiss them.”
Phillip Ruddock told The Guardian the panel had “looked for examples of questionable conduct” by faith schools but found examples of discrimination against LGBT students and staff “few and far apart and ill-defined.”
Greens back national Charter of Rights
Responding the review, Greens Justice spokesperson Senator Nick McKim warned religious freedom could not be viewed in isolation and he warned overriding state-based anti-discrimination laws “cannot be allowed to happen.”
“We need a Charter of Rights to balance the right to religious freedom against other important rights, such as freedom from discrimination,” he said.
Greens LGBTIQ+ spokesperson Senator Janet Rice said the federal government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Act “must not be a Trojan horse to expand discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, like his proposed discrimination in schools bill.”
“Discriminating against someone because they are LGBTQ+ is not religious freedom, it’s discrimination. Plain and simple,” she said.