Victorian State Director Dan Flynn has spent the last two days attending Senate hearings into the Exposure Draft of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 and has provided a summary below of the proceedings.

[caption id="attachment_23813" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Chelsea Pietsch and Anglican Bishop Robert Forsyth on behalf of Freedom 4 Faith give evidence at the inquiry"][/caption]

The Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs has heard evidence from a number of organisations including Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Freedom 4 Faith and Australian Association of Christian Schools.

At today’s hearing in Sydney, Chelsea Pietsch and Anglican Bishop Robert Forsyth gave evidence on behalf of Freedom 4 Faith, an organisation representing numerous denominations and legal experts. Bishop Forsyth argued that the Bill lowers the threshold for discrimination and overreaches into private life, imposing a significant regulatory burden.

He said that it would be preferable if freedom of religion were expressed as a human right instead of faith-based organisations having to rely on exemptions. Bishop Forsyth agreed that there should be transparency in relation to the terms of service provision.

Bishop Forsyth agreed with Senator Brandis' assertion that religious freedom is constituted by the freedom to practice that religion and to teach its adherents the principles. Bishop Forsyth contended that, accordingly, a faith-based school has a right not to employ those that disagree with the central tenants of the faith.

Ms Pietsch addressed the Inquiry about the motivations behind those in faith-based organisations to provide educational, health and welfare services; love of community and God. She emphasised the importance of faith-based organisations being able to operate with that integrity of purpose and belief without government dictating what services they can provide.

Father Brian Lucas gave evidence for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. He stated that it would be unfair for the Bill to hold people responsible for how somebody reacts to what we say. He agreed that there should be transparency with respect to the services offered by church service providers and referred to the Catholic Health Australia Code of Ethical Standards as an example of this transparency. (Read Father Lucas' opinion piece in the Canberra Times today Religious freedom should be protected)

Senator Brandis took issue with the Catholic Bishops' submission that "religion" should not be a protected attribute under the Bill, raising a concern that were it to be omitted it would expose religious people as "fair game". He criticised the proposed "protected attributes" as a grouping of objective, subjective, contestable and meaningless terms.

HammondCare, an organisation delivering aged care, gave evidence at the Inquiry asserting that religious freedom should be stated as a fully fledged human right, consistent with the evidence of Freedom 4 Faith and the Australian Association of Christian Schools.

At yesterday’s hearing in Melbourne, Executive Officer for Australian Association of Christian Schools Robert Johnston gave evidence on behalf of its 120 member schools.

His submission described the current draft as menacing and disturbing. He submitted that "conduct that offends" constituting discrimination was an unusually low threshold.

Labor Senator Louise Pratt asked whether Christian schools could place on the public record which attributes they wish to discriminate on and in what circumstances, so that the process is transparent.

[caption id="attachment_23814" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Bishop Robert Forsyth and Chelsea Pietsch"][/caption]

Mr Johnstone stated that the Bill should be amended to enshrine freedom of religion rather than have faith-based organisations having to operate under exemptions and exceptions. He advocated for the right to employ all staff in Christian schools who hold Christian values because they model the Christian lifestyle and behaviours to the students.

In answer to the proposition that Christian schools should not be allowed to discriminate because they receive government funding, Mr Johnstone replied that faith-based schools enable education to be provided to children at a discount rate for Government and that funding should not result in a restriction of religious freedom.

Mark Sneddon, Crown Counsel for the Victorian Government submitted to the Inquiry that the Victorian Government had concerns about the expansion of the definition of discrimination and the displacement of State and Territory anti-discrimination laws. The Victorian Government's submission contended that the Bill will significant increase in the regulatory burden for business, including broad vicarious liability for what employees say to others in the workplace.

The ACL believes, contrary to Government statements, the Bill does far more than consolidate existing Commonwealth legislation. It creates a number of new protected attributes including sexual orientation and gender identity. The Bill affords more substantial protection to these attributes than the attribute of "religion".

The Bill creates new provisions which define discriminating as unfavourable treatment of another person, including conduct that "offends, insults or intimidates" and reverses the onus of proof if  a complainant establishes a prima facie case. At the launch of the Exposure Draft in November 2012, it was stated clearly by the Attorney-General that religious freedoms would be protected.

The final day of hearings is scheduled for Friday the 1st of February in Canberra. The Senate Committee is due to hand down its report February 18, 2013.