Religious discrimination bill strengthens 'buffeted' freedoms: PM

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today stressed that nothing in the government’s Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, allowed for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

“You won’t find it, anything of that nature in this bill. Such discrimination has no place in our education system,” he said during the second reading of the bill in the House of Representatives this morning.

“As many schools have said throughout this process, ‘faith is caught, not taught’.

“The bill protects the fundamental right for religious schools to hire religious staff to maintain their religious ethos, in accordance with a publicly available policy.

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“This protection will be able to override state or territory laws which seek to interfere with that right.”

He said the bill provided certainty to school communities and to the staff they employ through the development of policies that are transparent to the school community. “It’s only fair.”

The Prime Minister was responding to concerns expressed by some left-leaning activists that the bill would permit faith-based schools to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender.

Mark Spencer, director of public policy at Christian Schools Australia, said there was no provision to expand the right of faith-based schools to discriminate against gay students and teachers.

“There’s a clear campaign being waged by those who oppose the bill, who oppose providing a basic level of protection around religious discrimination who are trying to muddy the water and introduce a whole lot of things that just aren’t relevant to the bill that’s before the house,” he told Eternity.

“What this bill does is provide fairly basic, fairly simple protection on the basis of religious discrimination and on the basis of religious belief in the same way as other attributes are protected. So it’s not a contentious bill.”

The Morrison government also moved a second bill to sit alongside the Religious Discrimination Bill It will amend other laws to make sure religious persons and bodies have other protections.

Alan Tudge, the Minister for Education and Youth, told the House the Religious Discrimination (consequential amendments) Bill 2021 would extend exemption in the Marriage Act to ensure religious schools could refuse to hold marriages outside their faith tradition.

This bill will override the Victorian Schools’ Bill currently before that state’s parliament which would narrow the ability of religious schools and other bodies to preference hiring staff from their own faith. This bill will make sure religious discrimination is dealt with the same way in anti-discrimination law as other discriminatory acts.

Describing the Religious Discrimination Bill as “sensible and balanced”, the Prime Minister said it sought to fix an important weakness in Australia’s discrimination laws which had no standalone legislation to protect people of religion, or faith, against discrimination.

“It strengthens important freedoms that have been buffeted over recent years.” – Scott Morrison

It also provided that people who sincerely expressed their non-belief would also be protected from discrimination.

“This bill is balanced and thoughtful. It does not take from the rights and freedoms of others,” he said.

“We do not seek to set one group of Australians against another because to do so would diminish us all.

“It strengthens important freedoms that have been buffeted over recent years.

“The bill honours the mandate we have from the Australian people to protect Australians of faith and religion against discrimination.

“This bill is about extending the umbrella of fairness that is so fundamental to our national character, because Australians strongly believe in fairness.

“This bill seeks to protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religion in daily life, including work, education, buying goods and services and accessing accommodation.”

While some existing legislative provisions provided some protection for people of faith, these could be complex, create uncertainty and were inconsistent across Australia, he said.

“In particular, there is a gap in New South Wales and South Australia, where there is either limited or no specific protection at all against religious discrimination,” he said.

“This bill will provide, for the first time, protections for those of faith and religion at the Commonwealth level, and in the states of New South Wales and South Australia where there is currently no state-based religious discrimination laws.

“This bill brings clarity and it provides confidence that Australians of faith can have confidence they will be protected from discrimination.”

“This bill brings clarity and it provides confidence that Australians of faith can have confidence they will be protected from discrimination.” – Scott Morrison

He said the bill strengthened important freedoms that had been buffeted over recent years.

“This bill seeks to protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religion in daily life, including work, education, buying goods and services and accessing accommodation.

“Australians shouldn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder, fearful of offending an anonymous person on Twitter, cowardly sitting there abusing and harassing them for their faith, or transgressing against political or social Zeitgeists.

“We have to veer away from the artificial, phony conflicts, boycotts, controversies and cancelling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies.”

“We have to veer away from the artificial, phony conflicts, boycotts, controversies and cancelling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies.” – Scott Morrison

The Prime Minister, who has often been criticised by Christians for not being more open about his faith, was forthright in expressing its values today.

“Religion and faith is also about humility and vulnerability,” he said.

“It is about love. It is about compassion. It is about speaking the truth in love, as the scriptures say.

“It recognises the sanctity and dignity of every single human being.

“Faith is about the heart, Mr Speaker, it is about the soul and the spirit. It’s not about the state or the marketplace.

“In our democracy, we rightly divide church from state, that is an important liberty. But we do not separate faith from community. ”

Morrison said he was grateful for the contribution of countless Australians of faith to human needs.

“The capacity of the state or the market to meet the needs of our soul and spirit have great limitations if any capacity at all. They can be incredibly impersonal.

“In between the state and the marketplace you will find the community, the family and the individual – and there also you will find the work of faith and religion.

“The protection from discrimination of faith and religion in the public sphere is therefore central to the strength of our civil society and the health of communities, families, and indeed our very selves.”

He noted that the bill was based on four years of work and was a long-standing commitment of our government.

“This bill is about extending the umbrella of fairness that is so fundamental to our national character because Australians strongly believe in fairness …

“This protection will give Australians of faith confidence – confidence to be themselves and confidence in the country they belong to. A resilient democracy that can embrace faith and not be threatened by it.”

Debate on the bill was adjourned after the government second reading speeches until Monday. The text of the bills is here