PM Morrison delays Religious Discrimination Bill, promises another draft

There will not be a religious discrimination debate in federal parliament this year, however a second draft bill will be released. Next week is the final sitting week of the year but that is not the only reason for the delay. The complexity of the task of achieving a balance between competing rights is also significant.

The headline of the Prime Minister’s press release issued this afternoon says it all: “GOVERNMENT WILL PROTECT RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS BY GETTING THE LAW RIGHT”.

“After further considering the hundreds of submissions that have been made to the Exposure Draft of the Religious Discrimination Act (RDA), the Government decided earlier this week to issue a revised and further exposure draft of the RDA Bill to reflect the Government’s response to the consultation to date and provide further opportunity for engagement,” the PM’s announcement says.

“This second and final exposure draft will be released before the end of the year, and will take account of issues raised and provide the opportunity to respond to the revisions made and fine tune the Bill before it is introduced next year.”

“Both sides of parliament need to engage seriously with the bill and its consequences” – Michael Kellahan, Freedom for Faith

Freedom for Faith’s Michael Kellahan tells Eternity that “Freedom for Faith supports the delay and expects most faith groups will be comfortable with this process. There has been enormous engagement with a whole cross section of views put forth, religious and non-religious. The drafting needs to be right. Both sides of parliament need to engage seriously with the bill and its consequences. So, let’s get it done right.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Government was lobbied to delay the bill by a wide range of faith groups including the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Australian National Imams Council and the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia. They argued that the original draft bill would “diminish the religious freedom of faith groups in Australia”.

Some of the concerns about the bill relate to clauses that say religious bodies would have the right to hire staff that conform to their teaching and doctrine, but a more flexible system is needed. For example, many Christian schools do not hire only Christians to teach but want the right to determine what proportion of Christians they can hire. The original draft bill does not provide that flexibility.

Other concerns centre on courts having to decide if the activities of religious bodies follow the teachings of the particular faith groups. This could see courts having to decide what a group’s doctrines are.

It is notable that the delay has been ascribed to a powerful group of religious bodies. Yet, there has been pressure also from more progressive groups and legal bodies advocating for a Bill of Rights. The existence of a letter co-signed by Sydney Catholics and Anglicans and Jewish and Islamic bodies indicates that a considerable networking effort has taken place.

“I thank everyone for their constructive patience on this issue and I am sure it will lead to a strong and enduring outcome.” – Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But the Government is careful to thank all groups involved: “Our Government will continue to proceed on the basis of good faith with a view to having a balanced and common sense Bill that protects the important religious freedoms that Australians can sadly no longer take for granted,” the PM says.

“I would like to thank the Attorney General for leading this process, all parliamentary colleagues who have engaged sincerely in this process, especially my Government Members and Senators who represent a broad cross section of views, the many religious and non-religious bodies who have also engaged in this process, and Australians of faith and of no faith for the way they have raised issues in a constructive way that enables the Government to take this important agenda forward.

“I thank everyone for their constructive patience on this issue and I am sure it will lead to a strong and enduring outcome.”