The Law Council of Australia has welcomed the federal government’s announcement of religious protections at the federal level, but said the “delicate balance” between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination would be better dealt with a National Human Rights Act.
The federal government today released the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review and its response, where it indicated it had accepted 15 of its 20 recommendations, and referred the remaining five to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for consideration.
“A Religious Discrimination Act presents opportunities to consolidate and perhaps strengthen the protections against discrimination and vilification on the basis of religion at the federal level,” Law Council President Morry Bailes said in a statement.
“The current protections for religious freedom in Australia at the federal level are fragmented and inconsistent.
“The United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted concerns regarding the ‘lack of direct protection against discrimination on the basis of religion at the federal level’.
“However, what is needed is a mechanism to protect our human rights in accordance with international human rights principles and a mechanism that appropriately balances competing rights such as freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.
“This can be best achieved via a National Human Rights Act, or alternatively, consolidated federal anti-discrimination legislation.
“While the right to freedom of religious belief is absolute, the manifestation of religion should not be protected at the expense of other rights and freedoms.
Among the Ruddock review recommendations referred to the ALRC are questions regarding the right for private religious schools to discriminate against school children and teachers.
Mr Bailes said the Law Council was “extremely concerned” that the question of whether lesbian, gay and transgender students could be discriminated against has been referred for further review.
“Children should not be discriminated against, period,” Mr Bailes said.
“Having a cloud of uncertainty over the heads of LGBTI+ children while the ALRC conducts its investigation has the potential to further traumatise or stigmatise them.
“It is certainly not in the best interests of the child, which should always be the primary consideration.
“Questions around the employment of teachers are more complex and are more appropriate to be reviewed by the ALRC, but any discrimination against children cannot be countenanced.”
Mr Bailes said the Law Council would need to see the detail before reaching a final position on any draft legislation and urged the federal government not to rush the process.