Religious Discrimination Bill faces a tough path

And not just with non-Christians

Religious groups won’t be “deliriously happy” with the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 when it is eventually passed by Federal Parliament, predicts Attorney-General Christian Porter. But he does think it will ultimately gain their endorsement.

“Endorsement,” he asserted, “lies somewhere on a continuum” between “deliriously happy” and “unhappy”.

Porter believes the bill will gain the support of religious groups because it “does important things” like protecting them from being excluded from a venue and providing some degree of freedom of religious expression in a workplace. The debate up until it passes is, in Porter’s words, the “grinding process of balance and compromise that can ultimately produce a sustainable result that is a better than what we have at the moment.”

Porter hopes – but doesn’t guarantee – to bring his draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill to Federal Parliament within the next two weeks.

Having personally consulted with 90 different diverse stakeholders in two-hour meetings, Porter quipped his job is part of a “long but unglamorous tradition” of making people “unequally happy” and providing “evenness in dissatisfaction”.

Speaking to the National Press Club in Canberra today in his first address as Attorney-General (AG), Porter described the process of drafting the bill as “a delicate process of balance” through which he has found “human rights are in a constant state of conflict”.

“In practice, human rights tend to collide rather than neatly contouring with one another,” said the AG. And, Porter noted, people disagree about which human rights are most important and where to draw the line between them. Two such rights are the freedom to associate and the freedom to access places and institutions, without exclusion.

However, the AG also said that religious bodies need to retain “a level of exclusivity” when it comes to their premises, services and staffing, in order to enshrine the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Porter hopes – but doesn’t guarantee – to bring his draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill to Federal Parliament within the next two weeks. From there, it will most likely go to a Senate Committee for another round of consultation and redrafting. Finally, the bill will be debated and voted on in both houses – a process Porter thinks “is going to require a degree of bipartisanship and integration” by the Labor and Liberal parties.

The most significant changes to the current public draft of the bill, the AG said, will be that religious hospitals and religious aged care providers will be given the same kind of exemption as schools when it comes to staffing the organisations with religious employees. Aside from that, he said the current public draft would not be majorly altered but merely “tightened up” in response to the feedback received in consultation.

“My preference would be for a global human rights bill.” – Elenie Poulos

The change announced by Porter has been welcomed by some Christian groups including the legal think tank Freedom For Faith. However, as Porter predicted, not all Christian groups are happy with the current draft of the bill.

Macquarie University’s Elenie Poulos – former long-time Director of UnitingJustice, and  author of an Australian Journal of Human Rights‘ article “Protecting freedom/protecting privilege: church responses to anti-discrimination law reform in Australia” – spoke to ABC news following Porter’s address.

“I think religious freedom is generally not well protected in Australia and it’s very patchy. So I don’t have any underlying sort of negativity towards the bill. My preference would be for a global human rights bill that actually takes all of the rights that that we have obligations to uphold and puts them together in a bill,” Poulos said.

But of the current draft, Poulos said, “I think it needs lots of work.”

“What we heard today from the Attorney-General is that really the intention is to make one change – one of the changes that some churches and religious organisations have been calling for – but it doesn’t appear that they’ll be addressing other changes that, for example, the Australian Human Rights Commission and others have been calling for.”

Poulos’ view is consistent with the submission made by the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) to Porter’s office:

“Having identified the Uniting Church preference for a comprehensive Human Rights Act, there are significant parts of the exposure draft [bill] that we support. The legislation by and large would enable the UCA to continue to freely practise our religion. The Uniting Church is however concerned that this legislation adds to the complex patchwork of anti-discrimination laws already in place but does not adequately achieve the balance between competing rights. We are concerned that the exposure draft leans too heavily in favour of religious freedom over other rights.”

“The bill is very broad in its in its scope – it’s very far-reaching and it privileges, in particular, speech based on religious belief. It privileges that above the rights to not be discriminated against on the basis of your gender or your sexuality or even disability,” Poulos told the ABC.

“I think that it’s way too privileging of the notion of religious belief in that respect, and I say that as a person of religious belief.”

“I would much rather see a bill that works to cement and improve social cohesion, rather than split people into isolated groups.” – Elenie Poulos

Poulos described the AG’s announcement that religious hospitals and aged care institutions would now be given the same privilege to discriminate that religious schools currently have as “a backwards step”.

“I would much rather see a bill that works to cement and improve social cohesion, rather than split people into isolated groups,” she said.

She would like to hear future conversations considering how to better protect people who are discriminated against on the basis of their religion, for example Muslims in Australia, rather than how far Christian religious organisations could go in discriminating against others.

“Let’s bring the conversation back to how we can better protect religious minorities,” she said.