Religious Discrimination Bill locked in for federal parliament this month

The Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill will come before parliament when it sits for two weeks starting 22 November. The details of the bill should be made public within the next couple of weeks.

Talks with key religious leaders continued this week. Eternity understands there have been a number of meetings between religious leaders and the Attorney-General’s office over a number of months.

The government will meet its commitment to introduce the Bill to parliament before the end of this year – which means the next and final sitting for 2021 – but the debate may not be concluded.

Key topics are the Folau clause – which the Australian Christian Lobby has said is in the bill – which would protect religious free speech, in particular, out of work hours.

In the second draft of the Bill the provisions concerning “vilification” were tightened to mean only to “incite hatred or violence”. This allows robust discussion of religion.

Another provision sought by religious leaders is for religious bodies – associations and churches – to be protected, rather than only individuals. This is because religion is usually exercised in groups – for example, in churches.

The explanatory notes to the second draft explained the operation of this provision: “Conduct engaged in by religious bodies in good faith that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion, or which is engaged in to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion, is not discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity for the purposes of this Bill.”

The second draft also gave religious bodies the right to prefer to hire staff from their own faith. The first draft attempted to give schools and other religious bodies a right to hire staff according to their doctrinal basis, but it was drafted as a blunt instrument that gave them the right to hire all their staff from a faith group. The new provision enables them to hire a proportion (which could range from all to only some).

Many Christian schools and charitable institutions will be keen to maintain these clauses.

The introduction of Victorian legislation to “severely narrow” the ability of schools and other institutions to hire staff from a particular faith group has made it necessary that a commonwealth act be passed, according to the legal think tank Freedom for Faith. “Along with the Conversion and Suppression Practices Bill passed earlier in the year, these proposals are making it harder to trust that the Victorian government is attempting to grasp the nature of religious freedom rights in good faith,” says Freedom for Faith Executive Director Rohan McHugh. “It is therefore critical that the federal government pass the Religious Discrimination Bill to protect Australians from these erosions to freedom of association, conscience and religion.”