Before the pandemic, ‘religious freedom’ was a hot topic on the Morrison Government’s political agenda. It’s creeping back, with key stakeholders pushing to enact the contentious Religious Discrimination Bill before the next election.
An overview of the Bill published on the Attorney-General’s website indicates that it is designed to prohibit discrimination “on the grounds of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life”.
The Bill resulted from the recommendations of the 2018 Religious Freedom Review, conducted by a former minister in the Howard Government, Philip Ruddock. The findings from the review remained dormant until the Israel Folau controversy catapulted the issue into the media spotlight. Folau’s Rugby Australia contract was terminated after the star player posted on social media that homosexuals, adulterers, atheists and other “sinners” would go to hell.
Following Folau’s social media post, public debate raged about the rights of religious individuals to express themselves and the rights of minorities, especially in the LGBTQI community, who could be vilified or degraded by such expressions.
The Bill proposes that religious bodies, including schools, can engage in conduct, in good faith, “that a person of the same religion could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their religion or to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion”.
Right to act
Simply put, individuals such as Folau, as well as organisations and charities, would have the right to act on their religious beliefs, even if those acts were discriminatory under other laws.
Supporters of the Bill hold that existing anti-discrimination legislation will continue to protect those who are discriminated against based on ‘protected attributes’. Protected attributes include race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age and religion.
Current anti-discrimination laws already provide religious bodies with the protections proposed through similarly worded exemptions in the current legislation.
The Bill will allow religious bodies including schools, charities and businesses a ‘positive right’ to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom, thereby reducing the rights of people already susceptible to discrimination.
It also allows such bodies to make claims of religious discrimination.
The Commission strongly supports “enforceable protections against religious discriminations for all people in Australia”.
But it says the exemption for religious entities “undercuts protections against religious discrimination” and the Bill “would provide protection to religious belief or activity at the expense of other rights”.
Under current legislation, religious bodies cannot actively discriminate based on their religious beliefs. They can only do so through applicable exemptions.
Hiring and firing
But the proposed Bill would ensure that religious bodies and individuals would be free from the operation of current Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.
It would directly affect staff and students in schools, which could hire and fire staff or turn away students who don’t align with their religious values and beliefs.
Religious schools would be able to dismiss gay teachers, unwed mothers, or refuse to enrol trans or gender-diverse students.
Unfortunately, this already happens.
The Age recently reported that Victorian teachers had been sacked by religious schools after coming out as gay, an action which is “perfectly legal under most state and federal laws, which give religious organisations and their schools exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation”.
The IEU VicTas Discrimination Survey reported that 48 percent of Victorian Catholic secondary education staff had witnessed or been subjected to discrimination in their workplace.
These employees need more, not less, protection.
The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, marital status or pregnancy, but the exemptions under that Act provide protection for religious educational institutions.