Religious Discrimination Bill in the bin

The IEU has opposed the Federal Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill since it first darkened the horizon in 2019. Here's how the union helped kill this contentious Bill.

The very title of the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is misleading: while it purports to defend people against discrimination based on their religious beliefs, what it really does is arm employers with new rights to discriminate against employees in faith-based schools.

Brisbane’s Citipointe Christian College appeared to have been emboldened by these potential new laws. In late January, the college sent families an “enrolment contract” stating “the college will only enrol the student based on the gender that corresponds to their biological sex”. The contract also asserted that homosexuality is “sinful”.

Facing exposure in the media and considerable public pressure – more than 100,000 people signed a petition opposing the “contracts” – Citipointe retracted them. The entire episode reflected just how out of step Citipointe was with community values; but under the proposed legislation, its “contracts” would have been legal.

The proposed laws put teachersand support staff at risk of discrimination based on marital status or relationship status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity and access to reproductive health services, including IVF. Employees could be discriminated against for holding particular religious views – or even not holding religious views.

Alarmingly, this legislation, if passed, will override state and territory anti-discrimination legislation and the protections they provide. Yet in the past 40 years of discrimination laws in Australia, there is hardly a single example of federal law overriding protections granted under state and territory laws.

“This is bad legislation, created for political purpose not protection,” IEUA Acting Federal Secretary Christine Cooper said. “Should it pass, it will only create confusion with existing anti-discrimination legislation and result in endless legal battles.”

Real threat

If passed, here’s what the Bill will do:

  • privilege the rights of religious organisations over individual employees’ beliefs, even where their beliefs have no relevance to their job.
  • act as a mechanism to discriminate against IEU members who raise complaints, seek assistance or take other action in their workplace to stand up for their own rights or the rights of others.
  • allow religious bodies – schools, hospitals, aged care facilities and accommodation providers to hire, fire or promote any employee based on their religion, regardless of their suitability for the role.
  • protect people who make discriminatory religious statements of belief, even if they are offensive, inappropriate or harmful (for example, a nurse could tell a patient who has HIV it is ‘a punishment from God’ and this would be protected.)

“It is a real issue for school staff,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Acting Secretary Carol Matthews. “An IEU member lost their job in late 2021 because they were in a same-sex marriage.”

In a separate incident, a teacher in a faith-based school was dismissed for becoming pregnant via IVF. As one IEU member noted, “If schools sacked everyone who didn’t conform to their religious doctrines, they’d only make teacher shortages worse.”

The IEUA signed a full-page open letter to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, that appeared on page 5 of the SMH on 23 November 2021. The letter was signed by 26 other prominent organisations, including Amnesty International. “Our laws should protect all of us, equally,” the letter said.

Tracing its path

The Religious Discrimination Bill was introduced to the Parliament three times. This alone indicates the degree of opposition to it. It has also attracted some 13,000 written submissions from religious groups, legal representatives, the LGBTIQ+ community, other community groups and several unions, including the IEU and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

On 26 November 2021 the Bill was referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. This committee held public hearings on 21 December 2021 and 13-14 January 2022. The IEU addressed this inquiry in January.

On 9 February 2022, the contentious Bill found its way back into the House of Representatives. Labor MP Stephen Jones delivered a moving speech in the House of Representative about how he'd recently lost his young nephew, who had been struggling with his identity, to suicide. Jones also spoke of his worries for the safety of his own unconventional teenage son.

Debate continued throughout the evening of 9 February until after 4am on 10 February. Ultimately, five members of the very government that proposed the legislation crossed the floor to vote with the Labor opposition to repeal a section of the Sex Discrimination Act (bundled with the Religious Discrimination Bill) that allowed religious schools to discriminate against students on the grounds of both sexuality and gender identity.

After experiencing these amendments from the opposition and five members of its own side, it appears the government has given up on its own legislation – for now at least. As of 10 February, the legislation was not scheduled for debate in the Senate, which doesn't sit again until March. We can all relax – for now.

But the IEU will be watching closely to see if this Bill rears its ugly head again.

Union speaks up

IEUA Acting Federal Secretary Christine Cooper appeared at the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to explain just damaging this legislation could be for the union’s 75,000 members throughout Australia.

“This Bill doesn’t support the rights of our members,” she told the Committee on 13 January. “The element of fear that exists in our schools cannot be ignored.

“To date there seems to be much discussion about the rights of organisations – of schools and of employing authorities to discriminate on grounds of religious doctrine.

“Yet little focus has been placed on how to support and protect the human rights of individuals or on the impact of fear or threat of reprisal has on job security and the physical and mental wellbeing of employees.

“This proposed legislation, in again preferencing the rights of employers over the human rights of employees, looks backwards. It failed to consider either the contemporary reality of working life in faith-based schools or the broader Australian community’s attitudes and expectations.”

All IEU members and students in schools deserve safe workplaces and learning environments.

Monica Crouch