Discrimination in the name of faith

9 September 2021 | Posted In: #140 Spring 2021,

The zealots are on another crusade, this time hoping to resurrect the religious discrimination bill. Christopher Kelly reports.

The Christian soldiers are on the march again. Hoping for it to be a case of third time lucky, Australia’s conservative religious groups are pushing for the government to redraft religious discrimination laws in an effort to impose on Australia what amounts to a soft theocracy. Attorney-general Michaelia Cash has stated that religious discrimination laws would be back on the agenda by the end of the year. “Our government,” said Cash, “takes the issue of discrimination against Australians on the grounds of their religious beliefs seriously.”

That various laws are already in place to protect Australians to practise their faith is by the by. As is the irony of the demand from religious victims of discrimination to be granted legal rights to discriminate against others, in particular those who don’t prescribe to the tenets of their faith — we’re looking at you gay boy.

Following concerns voiced by not only human rights and LGBTQ+ groups, but also by the unions, education and health bodies, and people of faith themselves, the two initial attempts at constructing a religious discrimination bill failed. This hasn’t deterred conservative hardliners — such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) and Freedom for Faith — campaigning hard for the issue to play front and centre at next year’s federal election.

Speaking to Crikey, Greens LGBTQ+ spokesperson Janet Rice said that — as with the two previous drafts — the third attempt at constructing such a bill would be another “Trojan horse for hate”. “This bill isn’t about religious freedom,” said Rice. “It’s about groups like the ACL, and the extreme far-right MPs of Morrison’s party, trying to push their fearmongering ‘culture war’ agenda to rile up their base and discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, women and people with disabilities.”

If the bill were to become law, religious schools or other faith bodies acting in accordance with their religious beliefs would not be discriminating in doing so. Opponents of the bill argue this will encourage discrimination and cause immense damage to people who are already the usual targets of bigotry and racism. All a person will need to say to justify their racist, homophobic, sexist or abusive comment is that it is their religious belief. The Law Council of Australia argues the bill provides a defence for potentially harmful and humiliating statements made in public, in the workplace or on the sports field. It also allows religious bodies to discriminate by preferencing fellow believers for work or access to facilities.

Having met with Cash in June, Freedom for Faith released the following media statement: “Now that attorney general Michaelia Cash has resumed consultations with religious groups, Freedom for Faith is calling on the government to follow through on their promise to pass the religious discrimination bill before the next election. A robust religious discrimination bill will guarantee perfectly reasonable protections for the consciences of individuals, and the established purposes of institutions. Average Australians of faith deserve the space to live out their deeply held convictions in public.” Freedom for Faith has urged any MP who disagrees for the need for a strengthening of religious freedom laws “to make their position clear to voters so that they can decide at the ballot box whether we should vote for them”.

Meanwhile, the ACL is funding a social media blitz, hiring key personnel, and meeting with various other political allies in Canberra. The ACL is also fronting up on mainstream media. On an appearance on ABC TV’s Q&A program, ACL MD Martin Iles said he wanted to see Australian Christians become “move visible” like members of the LGBTQ+ movement. And it appears Iles is assembling the troops. In the past year, the ACL had amassed 73 local coordinators in 73 electorates. Come the next election, Iles wants 10,000 volunteers mobilised in all 151 electorates. The ACL is also heavily immersed in a revenue-raising drive to fund its crusade.

In a counter move, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have asked that existing exemptions allowing faith-based organisations to discriminate against the queer community be removed. “Our laws should protect us all, equally,” said Anna Brown, Equality Australia CEO, in a statement. “But right now, federal laws still allow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers, students and staff to be fired, expelled or treated unfairly by faith-based schools and education institutions, simply because of their sexual or gender identity.” (Three years after Morrison said his government would enact a law to ban religious schools from expelling LGBTQ+ students and sack teachers, there has been no action to keep that promise.)

Brown continued: “Instead of prioritising laws that privilege religious institutions and entrench new forms of discrimination, the attorney-general should deliver on the government’s commitment to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students at religious schools, and focus on winding back outdated exemptions that allow religious institutions to treat people unfairly because of who they are or whom they love.”

It’s not just the left that opposes the religious discrimination bill. Perhaps surprisingly, concerns have also been raised by some Liberal MPs who have warned Cash not to jeopardise hard-won equality rights. “A baseline for many Australians will be a commitment to not rolling back Australia’s very effective anti-discrimination laws, which are already in place,” said WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith.

For Smith and others, the bill’s core flaw is that it seeks to override existing federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws. For example, if the religious discrimination bill became law, a Christian would be able to call an atheist a sinner and cheerfully condemn them to hell; a doctor could well tell a transgender patient that God considers gender to be binary; a Catholic pharmacist could refuse dispensing contraception; a GP could refuse a gay man pre-exposure prophylaxis on the basis that homosexual acts are a sin. Meanwhile, religious hospitals or aged-care providers would be allowed to discriminate against their staff on the basis of religion both in terms of hiring and to set codes of conduct requiring them to act in accordance with that faith at work.

Brian Greig — spokesperson for national lobby group Just Equal Australia — says if Scott Morrison backs the latest effort to enact the religious discrimination bill, the prime minister would have broken a previous promise. “The prime minister had promised that this bill would be a shield and not a sword. This bill is a sword aimed at the heart of vulnerable minorities who fall foul of traditional religious doctrines. It was supposed to protect people of faith from discrimination, but instead it allows discrimination in the name of faith.”

Just Equal has written to Cash urging her to consult with the LGBTQ+ community and other groups disadvantaged by the proposed bill. “We are seeking an urgent meeting with Michaelia Cash to put our case against the bill, given it seems the government is only hearing one side of the story at the moment.” Greig added: “But we’re also realistic that the bill is likely to go ahead, and we are preparing to campaign against it.” As is Equality Australia. “The federal government’s current draft of the religious discrimination bill is deeply flawed, containing unprecedented and dangerous provisions,” said Brown. “We urge the attorney-general to deliver a proposal that protects everyone in our community — regardless of belief — equally.”