Christian groups step up fight for religious freedom

Christian political lobby group FamilyVoice is stepping up its fight for religious freedom by sending ‘Vote Wisely’ guides to churches, Christian organisations and supporters in the electorates of five Coalition MPs who voted against the government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

FamilyVoice spokesman Greg Bondar, who has accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison is going to ground on the issue, is targeting the electorates of Wentworth (NSW), Higgins (Vic), North Sydney (NSW), Reid (NSW), and Bass (Tas) where the sitting members crossed the floor of parliament to vote against the bill.

He accused these “recalcitrant MPs” –  Dave Sharma, Katie Allen, Trent Zimmerman, Fiona Martin, Bridget Archer – of “putting Australian Christians at risk of persecution, ridicule, and harassment at work, socially and in the public arena.”

“The government’s deal with the pro-LGBTIQA+ MPs promised to ban unfounded discrimination of LGBTQI students at schools through amendments to a different piece of legislation but particularly the Sex Discrimination Act 38(3),” he said in a statement.

“This would have been akin to taking the engine out of a car making it unfit for the purpose that it was intended.”

Neither he nor Mark Spencer of Christian Schools Australia has received any response from the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General to their letters and phone calls urging them to commit to finding a way to pass protections against religious discrimination.

“Scott Morrison has lost credibility in the eyes of many faith voters, having shelved the RDB and now having gone ‘underground’ by refusing to have a narrative on the RDB before the election,” Bondar told Eternity.

He was unimpressed by the lack of detail in a report in The Australian in which the PM said religious freedom remained a priority for him and a re-elected Coalition government as a fundamental right to ensure “a tolerant, multicultural, and multi-faith liberal democracy”.

However, Morrison warned that there needed to be a political consensus that did not include changes to the Sex Discrimination Act which threatened to make faith-based schools worse off.

“During the RDB debate he was hijacked by the so-called progressives by giving in to them on the Sex Discrimination Act,” Bondar commented.
“You will never get political ‘consensus’ on faith legislation so the PM needs to make a stand.”

“[Anthony] Albanese will be held to account if he fails to deliver on his promise to introduce an RBD,” – Greg Bondar, Family Voice

By contrast, the federal Opposition had made a commitment to pass a religious discrimination bill in its first term if it is elected to government.

“[Anthony] Albanese will be held to account if he fails to deliver on his promise to introduce an RBD,” Bondar said.

Last week Morrison blamed Labor for blocking the passage of the RDB in February and declined to recommit himself to the bill if returned to government. But Bondar said it was Morrison who shelved the bill after five Coalition MPs crossed the floor in the lower house.

“Scott Morrison is trying to blame Labor, which is quite wrong actually, because I’ve spoken to the Opposition Leader’s office in detail – I’ve also spoken to Kristina Keneally and Deborah O’Neil and they were all committed to just passing this bill,” he said.

“What’s happened is that they are committed for the next term of government. I haven’t got a commitment from the PM.”

Bondar said it was important to get a bill passed into law in some form and Christian lobby groups could argue about amendments later.

“It’s a bit like saying some dinner is better than no dinner, you know – at least I’m eating something,” he said.

Meanwhile, Spencer of Christian Schools Australia (CSA) also contacted both parties after the election was called urging them to pass a Religious Discrimination Bill that provides equivalent protections to the package that was withdrawn in February.

Spencer, who is CMA’s director of public policy, said he had not yet received a response but had had positive conversations with both sides of politics before the election was called.

He said he was prepared to consider minor amendments such as the one proposed by Labor about vilification.

“There is some support for that amongst particularly some of the minority faith communities,” he said.

“Now that wasn’t in the government’s bill, and the government’s indicated they’ve got concerns about the drafting of the opposition’s proposals around that. Where that lands, that’s really a secondary issue. So we’re not desperate to have exactly the same bill. We’re happy to consider sensible, minor amendments on their merits.

“But substantially we think it should be the current bill. It’s been extensively reviewed, it’s had lots of consultation, there’s been a fair bit of give and take by all parties. And we think it provides an acceptable compromise where we think it’s actually going to be sustainable in the long term.”

“We’re happy to consider sensible, minor amendments on their merits. But substantially we think it should be the current bill.” – Mark Spencer of Christian Schools Australia

Spencer said he couldn’t support a bill that was gutted from the current version.

“The current draft has been considerably wound back from some people’s hopes, and there’s certainly a lot of people amongst faith groups who have concerns about whether it does provide enough protections.

“But what we can do is accept that version, knowing that it does have a built-in review period in two years’ time. And I think that people will find after it’s been in place for two years the really quite extraordinary claims being made about how it will work in practice will be shown – we’ll have the two years of evidence to say that’s simply not happening. And that will, that will solve a lot of people’s concerns about the bill.”

Spencer said he believes Labor’s concerns about the statement of belief clause were overblown.

“Vilification is a different thing altogether but the statement of belief causes as it currently sits really reflects what the state of discrimination law is around the country anyway; all it does is makes that clear,” he said, adding that if Labor did put forward a bill that scaled back section 12 “we’ll be having some robust conversations around that with the opposition if they form government.”