"Better than nothing" ACL on the religious discrimination bill

The Australian Christian Lobby’s (ACL) National Director for politics Wendy Francis says the Morrison government has taken “a better than nothing” approach to the Religious Discrimination Bill which will soon be presented to the federal parliament.

Discussions between politicians and groups for and against the bill are occurring in advance of next week’s parliamentary sessions.

“The Australian Christian Lobby believes that the government’s long-awaited Religious Discrimination Bill is a constructive and helpful reform, requiring some improvement,” says Francis.

“The promised Bill is a valuable first step in acknowledging the importance of faith in the lives of the majority of everyday Australians and affirming the principle that religious people and the organisations they form should not be discriminated against.”

Francis has provided a table of the good and bad points of the new bill from the ACL’s perspective. Points that she regards as helpful include:

• Protection for people of faith against discrimination in the provision of education, accommodation, finance, and club memberships, closing gaps in NSW and South Australian discrimination laws;
• Statement of faith protections have been extended to qualifying bodies such as medical and teaching registration authorities. Health practitioners and teachers have been investigated and deregistered for reasonable statements of belief they made on social media or within religious groups;
• The ability for faith-based schools, public benevolent institutions, hospitals, and aged-care facilities to prefer to employ faith-based staff;
• Limited potential override of state-based laws that seek to prevent a religious school giving such preference;
• An override for section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act which provides that a person can bring an action if they are “offended” by statements pertaining to a protected attribute.

The background to these provisions includes new Victorian legislation that removes exemptions allowing Christian (and other faith-based institutions if they choose) to hire staff of faith only. Eternity recently published a conservative analysis from Mark Sneddon here.

Tasmanian Anti-discrimination legislation has a much lower bar than in other jurisdictions, which allows a complainant to seek action because they are offended, measured by what is considered offence not by general community standards, but by their particular groups. Street preachers as well as the Archbishop of Tasmania Julian Porteous, have been caught in a system where they regard  “the process is the punishment.”

Francis believes that more needs to be done. “We hope that this bill can be improved in 2022. There will be a further consultation process in the Senate, and we will take that opportunity to make further recommendations for improvement. As we approach the 2022 Federal election, we are heartened by Labor’s platform which recognises ‘the right of religious organisations to act in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their faith’ and that ‘such rights should be protected by law’ and ‘be subject only to such limitations as are necessary to protect fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Some of the “flashpoints for religious hostility ” that Francis seeks further action on include

• the overreach of employers into the employee’s private speech;
• the misuse of hate speech laws against religious expression;
• threats to churches and families from conversion therapy laws; and
• the increasing attacks on the ability of Christian schools to operate according to their ethos.

Here the background is the Israel Folau case but also lesser-known instances of Christian expression being gagged. But it is the outworkings of the Victorian Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 most likely where further struggles concerning religious freedom will take place.