The long-awaited second draft of the Australian Religious Discrimination Bill was released on December 11 after the first in August received almost unanimous pushback.
“The draft is certainly an improvement,” said Monica Doumit, director of public affairs and engagement for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.
“It closes a gap that exists in some states, where discrimination because of religious belief or activity is not covered,” she said.
“For example, currently, in NSW or South Australia I could walk in a shop and not be served because I am a Catholic” and there would be no protection in law.
While an improvement, the real worry is that the bill does not include protection of religious freedom around the issues of gender, sexuality and gender identity.
In fact, alongside the bill, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) is halfway through a review which has been considering removing all religious exemptions in anti-discrimination law. These exemptions are currently the only legal protection for religious bodies to uphold their traditional teaching on sexual morality in Australia.
In a media release on August 29 the ALRC announced its intention to modify the review based on the outcome of the Religious Discrimination Bill and it has postponed its reporting date from April to December 2020.
“We have more to lose from the ALRC enquiry than we have to gain by this bill,” said Monica Doumit.
The amended Religious Discrimination bill offers some improvements. These include broadening the definition of a “religious body” to include hospitals, care homes and charities, giving religious bodies the right to give preference to hiring staff of the same belief. It also offers safeguards to stop accreditation bodies from discriminating against religious institutions. But it would be an overall loss for religious freedom if the ALRC removes the exemptions.
According to Dan Flynn of the Australian Christian Lobby, the amended bill also has “some obvious gaps”. He believes that clause in the bill allowing employers to punish personal statements of belief under certain circumstances paves the way for “future Folaus” – a reference to the case of rugby superstar Israel Folau, who was fired by Rugby Australia for sharing his beliefs on Instagram.
In addition, the proposed bill will not override state law. So the bill may not prevent cases like the one involving Archbishop Julian Porteous who was pulled in front of the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner for distributing a pamphlet on the Catholic view of marriage to Catholic schools.
“We can’t let this bill be a trade-off.
We have to make that clear. As people of faith, we have to keep engaging in this bill,” said Monica Doumit.
“The problem is that this bill gets sold as ‘fixing religious freedom’” she said, but “in any statements we make, it has to be clear that this is only a part.”
The bill will not be read until parliament resumes in February 2020, while the ALRC will release its final report on December 12, 2020.
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