The Religious Discrimination Bill and a scare campaign that lacks substance

The Religious Discrimination Bill and a scare campaign that lacks substance

  • November 26, 2021

This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced the Religious Discrimination Bill into Federal Parliament. The Bill is a Coalition government election promise that it is now seeking to keep, albeit at the eleventh hour of its 3-year term.

The Bill is an important but unremarkable legislative proposal that will extend basic protections to Christians and all religious Australians that other groups have enjoyed for decades. If enacted, the Bill will bring federal protections for religious belief and activity into line with protections that attributes like race, sex, and disability already enjoy. The Bill is a commendable first step. It is not a cure-all for religious freedom issues, and it has glaring shortcomings, but it deserves support.

However, the Bill faces significant headwinds.

Dogged critics are already speaking out against the Bill, either calling for further watering down of the Bill, or for it to be scrapped altogether.

Opponents of the Bill raise the spectre of hypothetical scenarios where single women are refused services by doctors, same-sex attracted students are callously expelled from school, and Christian waitstaff serve you a fire and brimstone lecture on your sexuality with your morning coffee. In particular, activist lobby groups decry that the Bill will seriously harm the rights and dignity of LGBT Australians and other minority groups and will privilege religion.

This opposition campaign is nothing more than an exercise in baseless scaremongering. It completely ignores the lived experiences of religious Australians who face hostility for their beliefs. These are the people that the Bill has been designed to protect. People such as:

  • Hannah was banned from a café for reading the Bible and praying. When servers at a well-known café saw Hannah and Michelle reading the bible and praying together, they assumed Hannah was taking advantage of her friend who has autism. Hannah was told by the manager that she was “brainwashing” Michelle, was thrown out of the café, and was told never to come back.
  • Ian Shepherd almost lost his job for expressing his religious beliefs on social media. When activists complained to the Department of Education about Ian’s posts on his personal social media, the Department subjected Ian to a drawn-out and stressful investigation that almost cost him his career.
  • Madeleine was fired after she posted on social media that it was ok to vote ‘No’ in the same-sex marriage campaign. Madeleine’s employer sacked her, alleging that she was homophobic, and announced her dismissal online. Limited protections meant that Madeleine couldn’t hold her employer to account for discrimination.

There are many more stories of religious discrimination where Australians have been sacked, ostracised, and cancelled for their faith at australiawatch.com.au.

The Bill is largely unremarkable. The core provisions of the Bill mirror other anti-discrimination laws and constitute a very generic and long-accepted legal framework for protecting religious Australians from discrimination. The Bill will protect religious Australians from unfair treatment on the ground of their religious belief either directly by explicit discrimination, or indirectly by the imposition of a rule or requirement that would disproportionately affect people of faith. This protection will extend to standard areas of public engagement where religious discrimination is prohibited such as education, work, provision of goods and services, accommodation etc. In short, the engine-room of the Bill merely brings religious freedom protections into line with protections for other attributes. Indeed, in comparison to other attributes, religious belief and activity actually have less protection under the Bill.

Despite this, critics have sharpened the knives and instigated a hostile campaign to oppose the Bill. They ignore the real stories of religious people who have faced hostile treatment and the moderate aims of the Bill to give religious belief equal protection, not privilege.

The criticisms that have been levelled at the Bill do not stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny.

Equality Australia has criticised protections for statements of religious belief set out in clause 12 of the Bill. This clause gives narrow and qualified protection to moderate expressions of faith against discrimination complaints made under State and Territory laws. This protection in clause 12 of the Bill is modest, limited and extensively qualified. The protection afforded by the clause is so narrow that it won’t protect Christians from the real threat they face – pursuit under State-based vilification legislation which is often used to shut down religious speech that activists don’t like.

In recent public campaigns against the Bill, activists have raised spurious hypotheticals about the Bill, such as the suggestion that it will allow a male employer to tell his female employee that as a woman, she should be home with the children rather than at work because the Bible says so.

This is simply not the case.

The modest speech protection in the Bill does not disturb existing workplace laws or the framework of policies, procedures, codes of conduct and other rules that regulate workplace behaviour. A female employee has a myriad of avenues of complaint and remedy available for dealing with hostile treatment in the workplace. Clause 12 of the Bill will have no impact on those laws and neither with any other provision of the Bill. If an employer bullies an employee under the guise of a religious statement, it is still bullying at law.

The Bill also has its critics from the within the Government backbenches faithfully doing the work of the Opposition for them.

Trent Zimmerman MP has voiced his concern that the Bill privileges religious rights over the rights of other minority groups already protected under anti-discrimination law. He cautions that parts of the Bill, like clause 11, may “open the door” to religious schools to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexuality. This concern is unwarranted.

Clause 11 allows religious schools to preferentially hire staff who share the religious beliefs of the school. Fairly narrow protection is given against State or Territory laws that undermine this principle. But this protection has nothing to do with sexuality and gender, it allows a school to preserve its particular religious character in its staff. It is designed to ensure that an Orthodox Jewish school can prioritise hire of Orthodox Jewish teachers and not Christians.

Clause 11 doesn’t affect laws protecting sexuality and gender identity – these are protected by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and remain unchanged by the Bill.

Another example of baseless scaremongering.

The idea that the Bill allows religious Australians to discriminate against other people by privileging religious rights above others is simply untrue and is part of a well-organised scare campaign.

Apart from these peripheral differences, the Religious Discrimination Bill looks very much like any other anti-discrimination Act.

The Religious Discrimination Bill represents the keeping of an unambitious election promise by the Coalition government and is a good first step to addressing a serious gap in protections for religious Australians. It is surprising that such a modest and unremarkable legislative proposal has attracted such vociferous opposition. This is probably a general reflection of the increasing animosity towards religion from a small group of influential cultural voices.

The Bill faces a difficult and tortuous path through Parliament and will not be passed before the election. It is not a perfect piece of legislation, but it represents a first way point towards better recognition of religious freedom in Australian law.

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