The Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill contains “new and unorthodox” provisions that encroach too heavily on other human rights, the Law Council of Australia says.
The nation’s peak legal body has made a submission to the Attorney-General Christian Porter responding to the government’s controversial draft bill.
In it, the Law Council says that the government’s draft bill “purports to be based upon the approach in other federal anti-discrimination laws.”
But Law Council President Arthur Moses warns the bill contains “some significant and concerning departures from other anti-discrimination laws.”
“Some of these provisions are concerning because, contrary to domestic and international law, they prioritise the protection of freedom of religious expression over other well-established rights,” he said.
Under the draft bill, religious expression may “in a range of cases, trump the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or age – as well as the right to healthcare,” Moses said.
For example, the bill would weaken health practitioner conduct rules and risk increasing barriers to healthcare for people in regional areas or from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
‘Significant new rights at the expense of other rights’
Moses said freedom of religion is an important human right that “should be vigorously upheld.”
“But the same applies to other human rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against on other grounds such as race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or age,” he said.
“This is really a debate about what type of Australia do we want to be.
“The peaceful and harmonious diversity we have achieved in Australia is the envy of other nations.
“It shouldn’t be tinkered with by knee-jerk reaction legislation that may have unintended consequences. The Bill, if enacted, would create significant new rights at the expense of other rights.
“It is, plainly, a step too far to allow a dentist to refuse treatment on religious grounds.
“It is similarly excessive for a religious school to be able to exclude all contractors of contrary religious beliefs.
“Freedom of expression and religious freedom must accommodate tolerance and broader anti-discrimination principles.”
Moses said the best way to resolve tensions between rights would be by a legislated Charter of Rights.
AG Christian Porter says ‘not everyone will be happy’ with final bill
Attorney-General Christian Porter will introduce the religious discrimination bill to parliament and begin debate before Christmas.
But Porter told ABC Radio on Monday the the legislation will also face a “heavy and contested” committee inquiry.
He said he is trying to balance “as much as possible” three competing views to emerge from public submissions.
“Big business don’t want any limitation whatsoever on their ability to control what their employees do,” he said.
“Religious and faith groups are generally pleased with the protection offered by having religion as [a protected attribute].
“But they would probably go further in giving themselves greater autonomy around employment of staff.
“LGBTI groups would go further again another way around further limiting people’s ability to say things in accordance with their religion, even if those things aren’t malicious or said in bad faith.”
LGBTIQ advocates have previously warned of numerous problems with the drafting of the bill. Concerns range from anti-discrimination law to the provision of healthcare and harmful “conversion” therapies.
Christian Porter said there “will be changes [to the bill], but they’re not changes at the margin, nor are they massive or substantial changes.”
But he conceded the final religious discrimination bill will not leave everybody “perfectly happy”.
“That’s the nature of this type of legislation,” he said.
“The idea everyone will march with placards congratulating the government on the bill isn’t where we’re going to end up.
“But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a pathway [for the bill] through the parliament.”
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