Call for prayer as religious discrimination bill heads back to parliament
Two federal parliamentary committees that have been examining the Morrison government’s religious discrimination bill are due to report their findings on Feb 4, with the parliament to sit a week later.
Wayne Alcorn, the President of Australia’s second-largest church network, the Australian Christian Churches has called for urgent prayer. “This week, as we pray for our nation, I am asking you to pray specifically for the passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill through both Houses of Parliament,” he writes to pastors.
“If this Bill is not voted through then, this moment in history will not come again.”
Parliament is sitting for extremely brief periods in February (three days for the Senate, seven for the House of Representatives), and March (two days for the Senate, three for the House). Sessions closer to the likely May election will focus on the budget.
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Prayer points include
- Pray for a bipartisan approach to this Bill – Australia is not made better by a contentious public debate on religion.
- Pray for the Committee members as they prepare their Reports.
- Pray for the Attorney General Senator Michaelia Cash as she leads this Bill through the Parliament.
- Pray for the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus as he determines the ALP’s position on this Bill
- AND pray for the passage of this Bill through both Houses of Parliament.
Church leaders appeared before the committees. here are some highlights:
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights
“People in Sydney do report that they’re experiencing adverse treatment on the basis of their religion, but it doesn’t amount to discrimination,” said Bishop Michael Stead representing the Sydney Anglicans “We have been called bigots and homophobes and all kinds of, to me, offensive things, but I fully concede that it doesn’t rise to the level of discrimination and this bill won’t make any difference to that. So yes—people in the pews are worried about the rising tide of hostility directed towards people of faith, but it doesn’t amount to discrimination.”
Anglican schools employ LGBTIQ teachers: “The Sydney diocese and schools employ a wide variety of people, a wide variety of faiths and a wide variety of sexualities. To my knowledge, nobody has ever been sacked for being gay—if I can use that kind of language—from an Anglican school in Sydney. We do not require all of our teachers to profess the Christian faith, and in fact, probably only 25 per cent or 30 per cent of our teachers would identify as active, practising Christians; therefore, we have quite a diverse and inclusive teaching body across our schools.”
Senator RICE: So even in the Sydney diocese, which I know is at the socially conservative end of the Anglican Church, you’re saying that you don’t discriminate against staff and teachers on the base of their gender identity and sexuality.
Bishop Stead: That’s right. But I guess I’m here to speak on behalf of exclusive Muslim schools and Islamic schools and some Christian schools, who do require all their teachers to profess their respective faiths. Again, to push the point, nobody actually wants to sack people on the basis of their gender or sexuality; the issue is whether those teachers are able to support the Muslim ethos, Christian ethos or Jewish ethos of the particular school. For some schools, gender identity or sexuality will be a point of tension because it’s a point of religious belief, rather than about the gender—
Senator RICE: “Which is what I wanted to go to. In your submission you defend the right of the school that sacked Steph Lentz on the basis that her—”
Bishop Stead: “Which, to be fair, is not an Anglican school.”
Senator RICE: “It’s not an Anglican school, but it was on the basis that the belief of the school was that her sexuality no longer aligned with the school’s statement of belief.”
Bishop Stead: “No, the other way round. As a Christian school, we believe that marriage is between a man and a woman—that is, a Christian understanding of marriage is that it’s between a man and a woman. She was required to sign a statement of faith that said she supported the Christian view of marriage that it is between a man and a woman, and she indicated to the school that she was unable to sign that statement of belief.”
Senator RICE: “She was unable to sign that statement of belief but she still felt that she was a devout believer of that denomination. She had reconciled her faith and her sexuality but the school hadn’t. Basically, it’s the school’s view of what is their statement of belief which you are supporting as having primacy?”
Bishop Stead: “Absolutely. The point we make in our submission is that otherwise you end up with the school at the tyranny of the minority. We may have one teacher in a school who says: ‘You all believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and that’s an intrinsic part of the Christian belief, but I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that Jesus didn’t arise from the dead and I’m still a Christian. You now have to accept not just me but me teaching this, as a valid expression of my Christian faith, to these students.”
The bill needs a stronger definition of a religious statement of belief – which the bill seeks to protect in clause 12 – said Dr Carolyn Tan, Chairperson of the Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia “The concern is simply that it’s the ‘one other person in the religion test’, whereas we had suggested that it should be something that is either a more objective test or that it’s at least something that relates to what the leaders or the people in authority within a religion think are the doctrines or tenets. That’s usually the way it works when there is a more objective test. A fair bit of deference is given by courts and tribunals to what the leaders say the doctrines are. A concern is there might be a small minority of people who have a particular misguided interpretation of religion, and the tests should be higher than that.”
Speaking of the Uniting Church’s journey to inclusion of LGBTIQ persons, Sharon Hollis Presidenit of the Uniting Church said “I acknowledge it hasn’t been easy. I acknowledge that the great majority of the Christian church it still a not fully there. What I would also say is that simply because a Christian tradition holds an official position—that says it is ‘God versus gays’ so to speak—it doesn’t mean that mirrors the lived experience of people within that tradition. I know many LGBTIQ Christians in other traditions as well and I think they would also be looking for some protection from this legislation. It fails to protect them as well.
“As I say, it’s not an easy road. The kinds of experiences that Jason [Masters] and Elliot [Nicolas who also appeared with personal stories of being discriminated against in school or church because of their sexual orientation ] have spoken about continue to be to our internal shame and continue to be things that we have to repent for and look to do better in our own life. But it is absolutely possible, we believe, to be a Christian person and to be gay or lesbian or transgendered, or to be a straight person and believe those people also have a right to be included within the Christian faith. I think one of the dangers of this bill is the fact that it has been tied to the plebiscite and to the legislation of marriage equality, because what it does is suggest that the right to be free of religious discrimination is somehow counterposed to the right to practice your sexuality, particularly in the context of faith.
Peter Comensoli, Archbishop of Melbourne: “From our perspective, we’ve been working very hard to try and find a bipartisan way through all of this, and the leaders of both the major parties are aware of the conversations that we’ve had to try and bring something around that. I think it’s important to note that so that this does not become a political football and can be truly seen as something that the Parliament of Australia might want to come towards.”
On clause 12 which seeks to protect “statement of belief”: “In terms of section 12 itself, I want to say that having a statement of belief or faith is important and that that might be a protection, but I note most particularly that that’s not a free-for-all reality. It’s been couched in language of condition, such that statements are reasonable—and there’s the question of the test of reasonableness in this regard, and I might invite Rocque to say a little bit more about that in a moment—but also that statements cannot be vilifying or threatening and so on. So it’s not as if a statement can be made willy-nilly or inappropriately and so on. It’s a reasoned statement. I might ask, Rocque, if you might say something about the reasonableness test.”
Professor Rocque, from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference “I think the reasonableness test is about codes of conduct and what an employer could do. As you know, the statement of belief is couched at a level where you can’t harass, intimidate et cetera. We think that’s a good balance. It does, as you know, get rid of the provision about things being offensive, and that’s because religions can have hard truths and non-religious statements against religion can be hard truths for people. People might find them offensive, but they’re not intimidatory or threatening et cetera.
Archbishop Comensoli:” Or, if they are, they should be treated as such.”
Reverend Christopher Duke, Member of the Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Australia: “We do have a belief statement on marriage, sex and gender. It takes the traditional biblical view in these areas, but we are not out there trying to promote that particular aspect of our belief system. The church is about promoting the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“We are in the business of conversion but we don’t convert anybody; God does it and changes the heart of a person. That’s what we’re on about. Some of these other areas are important to some people, and we want to be compassionate with all people. But at the same time, we are also a denomination, a church, that has a particular belief system, an interpretation of the scriptures. We adhere to that and our people adhere to that. But that’s a part of life.
“As a person who has been a Christian for most of my adult life, there are always tensions. There have always been tensions in the workplace as to how you live your faith in work and with other people who have different opinions. One of things you do as you mature in your personality and in your faith is that you endeavour to still have your strong convictions but you also endeavour to act Christianly towards people with love and compassion and insight.”
There was a sharp exchange between Mrs Moira Deeming, Researcher, Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Victoria and Senator Rice which captured the division between progressive and conservative views.
Mrs Deeming: “Every religion says their religion trumps the other one.”
Senator RICE: “But they don’t have to express it.”
Dr Ross Clifford, principal of Morling College was handed the hot potato topic of whether a religious body’s view on divorce should be grounds for sacking. “With respect to divorce, we’d look at that matter on a case-by-case basis and actually see, as far as we could, what was behind that situation. If it’s a divorce because the person is living a totally inconsistent lifestyle and the partner left them because of their infidelity or whatever, that would be very different from a divorce situation where the marriage had just clearly broken down and both partners believed they could no longer live together in that capacity.
Clifford was asked about Karen Pack, sacked by Morling: “when Karen Pack asked to have a meeting with me and indicated that she was marrying her partner, and that she had a changed position with respect to what it meant to be in a relationship with this person and she would be getting married—apparently there was some information about that on her own private page on Facebook—we entered a conversation. I entered into a very strong pastoral conversation with Karen Pack. That took place over a number of weeks.
“We came to the conclusion that this was not where she could continue to exercise her gift, which is a very strong gift. I think we reached, as far as we could, as most graceful a place for Karen to move on. We farewelled her and welcomed her back. I’m in a Christian institution which has a position of sexual intimacy being between a male and female in marriage. So, if the person involved had been advising me they were leaving their marriage and going into another relationship with somebody else in a heterosexual situation, the same conversation would have taken place. For us, sexual intimacy is a marriage between a male and female.
Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Legislation
Pastor Mark Edwards representing the Australian Christian Churches appeared before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. This extract begins with Pastor Edwards reflecting onthe evidence from a Jewish winess.
“there’s the Jewish example of someone saying at a cafe: ‘You killed Jesus.’ I cannot understand anyone saying that …”
Senator SCARR: “Neither can I. I found that quite unbelievable.”
Pastor Edwards: “Yes—unbelievable. And it goes against the very tenet of Christianity that says that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. It just floors me. I can’t say to you that this legislation is going to stop those comments. We just can’t do that. No legislation is going to stop someone making—I don’t know if I can say it as bluntly as this—such a stupid statement. What this legislation does do, particularly in the area of statements of belief, is, I think, to put enough safeguards in there to ensure that reasonable statements of belief are protected under the act. For example, it has got to be conduct that is not discrimination. Statements of belief must not be harassing, threatening, intimidating or vilifying, as determined by a reasonable person; they must be of good faith and not be malicious, and in accordance with the documents, tenets, beliefs and teachings—that’s a high bar. So what I am saying is that, as far as I’m concerned, it gives me the comfort to know that statements that I’m going to make—very reasonably made—are going to be held to account by those particular criteria. But I can’t stop someone making a statement that is just totally disgraceful.”
Senator SCARR: “By the same token, from your perspective, it’s important that you have the right to express your beliefs”
Pastor Edwards: “Yes.”
Senator SCARR: “which are sincerely held, in a way that is moderate and reflects your longstanding and deeply-felt religious faith. That’s important to the expression of your identity as the person you are and the faith you hold—isn’t that correct?”
Pastor Edwards: “Yes, because I can’t separate my faith from anything I do. It’s not just my words; it’s my actions as well. It’s expressed through our church, as you will know, in the huge care program that we operate every day of the year. We don’t ask people, when they come to the church for help, what race they’re from or what sexual orientation they have—we don’t ask any of those questions. We don’t even ask whether they’re in need. We simply say: ‘You’re welcome to help.’ But I want to be able to express my Christian views, not only in the sense of the role I play as a pastor but as an individual as well.”
A key question in this committee was whether the bill is unconstitutional.
Anne Twomey, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney argued in her submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, that the bill is unconstitutional where it seeks to override state anti-discrimination laws. It led to a lot of questions to people appearing before the committee.
“Where the Commonwealth has the power to enact a valid Commonwealth law, Section 109 of the Constitution provides that the Commonwealth law will prevail over any inconsistent State law, to extent of the inconsistency, she argued in a tightly focussed submission. “The State law is rendered inoperative to the extent that it is inconsistent with the Commonwealth’s law.
“Section 109 only operates in relation to an inconsistency between valid Commonwealth and State laws. It does not confer upon the Commonwealth Parliament a power to repeal State laws or alter State laws or affect the interpretation of State laws or prohibit the State from enacting certain laws. The Commonwealth Parliament has no legislative power to interfere in State laws in this way.”
Nicolas Aroney, Professor of Constitutional law at the University of Queensland, one of the Christian lawyers appearing before the committee agreed. He told senator Deborah O’Neil l”Yes, I agree with Professor Twomey. In fact, she raises a question that I myself had raised in relation to the second draft bill. In my written submission to this committee I proposed alternative wording that could be instituted or inserted to replace what exists in clauses 11 and 12 to place this question beyond doubt. I would encourage the committee to consider that drafting. ”
In his submission Aroney says it will depend on whether a court regards the federal and taste laws as inconsistent, or of the Commonwealth is trying to replace a Stae law. he adds “To put the matter beyond doubt a simple drafting alteration could make clear that clauses 11 and 12 ensure that the described conduct is not unlawful notwithstanding anything contained in any of the prescribed state or territory laws. As Professor Anne Twomey has observed in her submission to this committee, such and approach would be consistent with the high courts reasoning [cites court case].
The question of whether Aroney’s solution will work or not will be key to the report this commit provides later this week.
WALTER, Mr Andrew, Acting Deputy Secretary, Integrity and International Group, ………………………… Attorney-General’s Department
Mr Walter representing the AG dept: As you’d be aware, it’s not the practice of the executive to share the legal advice that it receives in relation to legislation. I can say this, though, if it helps: we are confident, on the basis of the legal advice that we received, that the law is constitutional within the Commonwealth’s constitutional power, subject to the current interpretations that the High Court takes to various provisions in the Constitution.