Religious Privilege Bill | We must remain ready to fight

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Will the Religious Privilege Bill return and will it pass if it does? They’re questions I’m asked constantly. But before I answer them, let’s consider what’s in that Bill now it has passed the Lower House.

Rodney Croome is a long-time Australian LGBTQ+ human rights advocate. He is a recipient of the Order of Australia and a spokesperson for Just.Equal.

Some moderate Liberals failed us.

The Bill still has its loathsome provision allowing demeaning and derogatory ‘statements of belief’ in the name of religion.

This, despite the strong last-minute push from people with disability highlighting how it will disadvantage them.

Labor tried to take this out but most moderate Liberals who previously questioned the Bill, including Fiona Martin, Katie Allen, Angie Bell, Warren Entsch, Tim Wilson and Dave Sharma, voted with the Government to keep it in.

Congratulations to the exceptions, Bridget Archer and Trent Zimmermann.

Those moderates who voted with the Government gained much praise for voting to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect gay and transgender students from discrimination by faith-based schools.

The trans anti-discrimination provision was the purported reason the Government pulled the Bill. Therefore, many people attribute their sense of relief to the moderates.

But the Religious Discrimination Bill in its new form means LGBTQ+ students can still face discrimination through derogatory ‘statements of belief’ at school, as well as discrimination under cover of the ‘religious beliefs’ of the school (as per Citipointe College).

Protections for LGBTQ+ students are not as strong as they seem. Meanwhile, most moderates (again, not Archer or Zimmermann) voted the rest of the Bill through.

Labor fails us

The Sex Discrimination Act amendment protecting students also included protection for teachers, but Labor made sure this was voted down.

Some Liberal moderates joined Labor in upholding this discrimination with the exception of Bridget Archer, Trent Zimmermann and Fiona Martin.

Labor also upheld that part of the Religious Privilege Bill that overrides existing laws in Tasmania, the ACT, Queensland and Victoria protecting LGBTQ+ teachers and other staff in faith-based organisations.

Labor decided not to support teachers despite church authorities not ruling out firing gay teachers if the Religious Privilege Bill passes.

This feels like even more of a betrayal than the moderates not properly protecting LGBTQ+ young people.

Labor repeatedly promised it would not allow the weakening of existing protections but then did exactly that.

Maybe that’s why Tanya Plibersek jumped on Twitter to misleadingly announce, “Labor will change the law to protect school kids and school staff from discrimination.”

She was referring to Labor’s decision to send the issue to the Law Reform Commission.

In effect, if it wins Government, and should the Law Reform Commission and the Senate agree, it will pass national protections to undo the damage it is helping the Government inflict now.

Meanwhile, careers and lives will be destroyed.

Very little has changed

The amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act protecting trans and gender diverse kids was a win.

But nothing else has changed. These kids can still be denigrated and discriminated against under cover of ‘religious belief’, as can the rest of us.

Teachers and other staff in faith-based organisations remain in the firing line.

All the other many problems in the Bill remain, from restricting the power of professional organisation discipline members who communicate demeaningly in the name of religion, through restricting Councils from regulating street preachers, to allowing faith-based commercial facilities to discriminate.

If the Bill goes to the Senate before the election, it’s hard to predict what will happen.

The Government doesn’t control the Senate, but the numbers are very close.

It will be hard to amend the bill without the support of moderate Liberals willing to cross the floor.

We can hope Andrew Bragg and Dean Smith might do this, but it is not certain.

Whether we preserve or lose our rights will be decided on a knife-edge vote.

And in the end, if Senate amendments fail, Labor is committed to voting with the Government to pass the Bill regardless, just like it did in the Lower House.

Will the bill return?

On the one hand, it seems unlikely the Government would want another bruising stoush over the Religious Privilege Bill so close to an election.

A number of government ministers confirm this.

But on the other hand, the Prime Minister is personally dedicated to it.

To get a clearer insight let’s turn to recent history.

Over the past three years, this Bill has followed a pattern: it comes up, is subject to a flurry of debate and then disappears for a while.

This is not an accident. It is exactly the same pattern we see in the US with their religious freedom bills. It’s all about sending the right signals to conservative church-goers without waking up the rest of the community.

This is why I predicted the Bill would return after the Covid emergency, despite moderate Liberals and Labor saying it wouldn’t in order to deflect advocates from bothering them.

I was right.

I’ll refrain from making the same prediction again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Government tries one more time.

Regardless, the Bill is still so deplorable we must remain ready to defeat it.

We must stay vigilant and not stand down.

In that vein, I’ll finish with some observations about the religious privilege debate, including what it has taught us that we will be wise to keep in mind.

Observations about the debate

Personal stories and coalitions of affected groups make the difference. I know because some key MPs have told me it swayed them.

Too many moderate Liberals do the least possible to protect LGBTQ+ rights. Labor has betrayed us on teachers in faith-based schools and could betray us again.

The religious right has shown it is even more anti-trans than it is pro-religious freedom. We must do more to defend trans and gender diverse people from attack.

Labor’s small-target approach has not been “smart”. It has allowed the corrosive religious privilege debate to drag on far too long, hurting not only LGBTQ+ people and other minorities but also making it harder for Labor to challenge religious privilege in the long term.

A smarter approach would have been for Labor to expose the whole religious privilege farce by introducing its own conventional Religious Discrimination Bill, as a well as a Charter of Rights that balances religious freedom with other rights, and attempting to pass them through the Senate

The major parties need to stop having “marathon meetings” whenever they deal with LGBTQ+ issues and adopt clear, detailed policies instead.

Christian schools are now under the discrimination microscope like never before. Let’s keep the pressure up for them to adopt better policies and practices.

There is much more public awareness about, and anger toward, the religious discrimination LGBTQ+ people suffer than ever before. Our job is to translate that into reform, especially at a state level.

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