Human Rights Commission calls for changes to Religious Discrimination Bill

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Photo: ABC

Australia’s Human Rights Commission says the Morrison government’s draft Religious Discrimination Bill contains “a few highly problematic provisions” that should be amended.

In a submission to Attorney-General Christian Porter (pictured) responding to the draft bill, the Human Rights Commission has highlighted perceived flaws that they warn may cause “unintended and undesirable consequences”.

The submission warns the bill’s scope “is overly broad in defining who may be a victim of religious discrimination.” It is also “arguably too narrow” in defining who has engaged in the religious discrimination, the Commission said.

“[The bill] includes a number of unique provisions that have no counterpart in other anti-discrimination laws,” the submission states.

“The provisions appear to be designed to address high-profile individual cases.”

Religious discrimination bill’s so-called ‘Folau clause’

The Commission is concerned with the so-called “Israel Folau clause” in the draft bill.

It would permit only some employers to sack workers for expressing religious views. But companies with annual revenue of $50 million or more would be able to argue it was necessary to avoid “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business”.

“This is inconsistent with the acceptance by the Government that discrimination law should reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights,” the submission reads.

The government has “put forward no satisfactory explanation” for treating the big and small businesses differently, the Commission said.

Another complaint is the allowing of some “statements of belief” to override existing state anti-discrimination laws.

“The Commission considers that this overriding [of existing laws] is not warranted, sets a concerning precedent, and is inconsistent with the stated objects of the bill,” the submission reads.

The bill would also extend protection against religious discrimination to corporations, the Commission warns.

“Human rights protect innately human characteristics. So our human rights law has only ever protected humans,” Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow said.

“It would be inconsistent with international law to allow corporations to sue people for religious discrimination.”

Access to healthcare at risk

The Commission also flags problems with conscientious objections by medical practitioners. They warn the laws could pose risks to health services like contraception, abortion and euthanasia.

“Patients may lose the ability to obtain ‘information, prescriptions, or referrals’,” the submission reads.

“It would be reasonable to require health practitioners to provide those services or to make referrals to another health practitioner who is willing to do so.”

Religious discrimination bill can’t preference one human right over others

However, simply removing the few “highly problematic provisions” would improve the bill, Commissioner Santow said.

President Rosalind Croucher said the Human Rights Commission has advocated for religious discrimination protections for more than 20 years.

“Australia is a tolerant, pluralistic society. It is right that we provide the same level of protection against religious discrimination as we do against discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, disability and age,” she said.

“However, it is important that our laws do not give preference to one human right over others.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter unveiled the draft religious discrimination bill in late August.

The new 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.”

However, Equality Australia and others have also warned the bill has ramifications for LGBTIQ people in several areas.

The Morrison government will respond after submissions on the draft bill close this week, Porter said.

Submissions responding to the draft bill close at 5pm on Wednesday (October 2). You can make a submission online here.

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