Plans to expand the reach of federal anti-discrimination laws by the Labor Party will have a chilling effect on free speech in Australia at a time when it is already under strain, warns the Australian Christian Lobby.

ACL managing director Lyle Shelton said the plan, outlined by Labor legal affairs spokesperson Mark Dreyfus, to extend 18C-type restrictions across every area covered by federal anti-discrimination law: age, disability, race and sex, could be used to target sections of the community which hold different beliefs on issues such as marriage.

“What is proposed is a serious overreach that will have the effect of hampering free discussion relating to age, sex, race and disability that is important for our democracy,” Mr Shelton said.

“The  plan, which Labor failed to introduce in 2013 while in Government because of a public backlash, will stifle free speech and provide the mechanism to encourage vexatious discrimination claims whenever someone feels offended.

“Extending anti-discrimination laws will embolden rainbow LGBTI activists to use the laws to bully those opposed to same-sex marriage, as we have seen over the past week” he said.

“The intolerance of same-sex marriage activists that has been on display in recent weeks with attacks on Coopers Beer, the Bible Society and a senior executive at IBM Australia will only increase under an expansion of 18C-type provisions into all anti-discrimination legislation

“The big problem is not the aspiration behind the laws - It’s fair to say that few people want to be offensive or insulting. Rather, the problem is in the way the laws are being applied. These laws are the weapon of choice for political activists who increasingly engage in 'lawfare' to suppress and punish their ideological opponents through the power of the state.

“It will lead to more cases like that seen in Tasmania, where in 2015 Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous was hauled before the anti-discrimination commission for promoting the church’s teachings on marriage,” Mr Shelton said.

“Laws of this nature lack the traditional safeguards of our legal system. For example, no actual harm needs to have been identified, no chain of causation between the deed and the harm need exist, there is no requirement of intent, the subject of the regulation is extremely subjective and uncertain being mere words, and unfortunately the handling of discrimination cases lacks transparency in the handling of complaints.

“Australians expect their laws to uphold the fair go and freedom of speech, not become a tool with which activists can harass their fellow Australians who have a difference point of view.”