There’s no need to panic (just yet) about the government’s proposed religious “freedom” bill. As it turns out, no one wants it, and it’s bad law.
Miles Heffernan is a Brisbane-based Industrial Advocate and expert in employment law.
It’s a solution looking for a problem. Indeed, the bill only came about to placate people of faith who claimed religious freedom was under threat following the marriage equality debate. That, of course, is nonsense.
The truth is, current legislation already offers plenty of protections for believers.
Under the Fair Work Act, employers cannot take “adverse action” against an employee, or prospective employee, on the basis of religion.
Exemptions in Queensland’s anti-discrimination laws already allow faith-based schools and nursing homes to sack or refuse to employ someone based on their sexual orientation, gender or marital status.
There are also exemptions in the same-sex marriage legislation allowing celebrants and religious bodies to refuse goods and services for marriages on the basis of religious beliefs.
So why the need for more protections?
Conservative groups point to the case of rugby player Israel Folau.
Under the proposed law, large businesses like Rugby Australia will not be allowed to fire someone for breaching their employment contract by expressing their beliefs unless they can prove “unjustifiable hardship”.
Section 41 will allow people to make statements that insult, offend, ridicule or humiliate, as long as it is a statement of belief.
The section overrides all existing discrimination laws. As a result, those on the receiving end of harmful comments will lose their recourse to discrimination laws.
And here’s the real kicker.
The law will allow people of faith to make hurtful or harmful comments about any subject. However, the law will restrict non-believers from comments other than those that arise from their lack of religious belief.
This could result in absurd situations. One worker, for example, could speak out against same-sex marriage. However, the law would prevent a gay co-worker from defending it.
Everyone is supposed to be equal under the law, but this bill makes some more equal than others.
Publicly, the government maintains that it has “got the balance right.” However, it clearly has not. Further, sources close to the Attorney-General’s office tell me they don’t expect the bill to pass in its current form.
At its heart, the bill is not about religious freedom. It is about protecting Christianity as the predominant religion and moral voice of the land. Nevertheless, it won’t work.
Because if you give Hillsong the right to send gays to hell, then you also should give the mufti at the Lakemba mosque the right to preach that women who don’t wear a hijab are “uncovered pieces of meat” who deserve sexual assault.
Is that really the society that we want to live in?
Miles Heffernan is available as a workplace advocate through IR Claims.
If you are having a workplace issue, please call IR Claims on 1300 853 837.
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