The Government’s long-awaited Religious Discrimination Bill is a constructive and helpful reform, requiring further improvement.

The promised bill is a valuable first step in acknowledging the importance of faith in the lives of the majority of everyday Australians and affirming the principle that religious people and the organisations they form should not be discriminated against.

Helpful reforms in the bill include:

  • Protection for people of faith against discrimination in the provision of education, accommodation, finance, and club memberships, closing gaps in NSW and South Australian discrimination laws.

  • Statement of faith protections have been extended to qualifying bodies such as medical and teaching registration authorities. Health practitioners and teachers have been investigated and deregistered for reasonable statements of belief they made on social media or within religious groups.

  • The ability for faith-based schools, public benevolent institutions, hospitals, and aged care facilities to prefer to employ faith-based staff.

  • Limited potential override of state-based laws that seek to prevent a religious school giving such preference.

  • An override for section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act which provides that a person can bring an action if they are “offended” by statements pertaining to a protected attribute. That is an inappropriately low standard and the bill is right to override it.

However, the bill does not address some of the flashpoints for religious hostility in the real world such as:

  • The overreach of employers into the employee’s private speech.

  • The misuse of hate speech laws against religious expression.

  • Threats to churches and families from LGBT conversion laws banning prayer and counselling.

  • The increasing attacks on the ability of Christian schools to operate according to their ethos.

We hope that this bill can be improved in 2022. There will be a further consultation process in the Senate, and we will take that opportunity to make further recommendations for improvement.

As we approach the 2022 Federal election, we are heartened by Labor’s platform which recognises “the right of religious organisations to act in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their faith” and that, “such rights should be protected by law and be subject only to such limitations as are necessary to protect fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

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19 November 2021