Religious hospitals will soon be able to pick staff based on faith

Religious hospitals and aged care providers will soon be given the same discretion as schools and other faith-based organisations when it comes to hiring staff.

Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Attorney-General Christian Porter. Source: AAP

Attorney-General Christian Porter has flagged stronger religious rights for faith-based hospitals and aged care providers as he fine-tunes his delicately balanced religious freedom laws.

Mr Porter addressed the National Press Club on Wednesday and did not shy away from the challenge posed by weighing conflicting interests over the impending legislation.

He described the consultation period as the most "grinding process" of "balance and compromise", noting that all sides will need to manage expectations over their demands.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has described the religious freedom laws as a balancing act of compromise.
Attorney-General Christian Porter Source: AAP

But Mr Porter did flag one “significant change” to a draft version of the bill already put forward for community consultation. 

“One significant change from its first draft will be that religious hospitals and aged-care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to (the) employment of staff,” he said.

“The religious hospitals and aged care providers themselves recognise that competing objectives of providing access to health services and maintaining a faith-based identity must be reconciled."

'Trying to balance views'

Many hospitals and aged care providers have raised the importance of being able to maintain religious culture by taking into account the views of employees.

Mr Porter said the institutions had “reasonably sought” an exemption to the general prohibition on religious discrimination in employment.

He insisted hospitals and nearly all aged care providers did not consider someone's religion when choosing whether to provide them with care.

"It's just not something that in practice they do," he said.

Mr Porter is still aiming to introduce the Bill to Parliament within the next fortnight - the final sitting for the year - but anticipates it will be sent to a Senate committee for another round of consultation.  

So far a draft version has seen community stakeholders put forward their preliminary views through submissions now being considered.

Mr Porter said in practice “human rights tend to collide” alluding to a disagreement between religious, human rights and LGBTIQ+ groups on the need for stronger protections.

“You're trying to balance views and produce an outcome. But ultimately, the bill is about protecting people of faith from known problems,” he said.

"I think that, particularly with religious groups, there will ultimately be endorsement because the bill does some really important things."

Conflicting opinions

Religious groups have been generally supportive of the measures being proposed by the Federal government.

But some have asked for even fewer limits on religious expression and a broader definition of what can be considered as a faith-based organisation.

In contrast, LGBTIQ+ and human rights groups have expressed fears the legislation could override existing discrimination laws and interfere with employer codes of conduct.

Concern has also been raised over whether religious freedom laws could impact the access of patients to medical treatments based on a doctor's faith.

Mr Porter said religious bodies deserve to maintain a “chosen level of exclusivity” to their premises and the services they provide.

“[But] it cannot be stressed enough that this type of exception for religious bodies applies only in respect of decisions on matters of religious doctrine that pertain to people of different religious beliefs,” he said.

“And the Bill does not affect the current exemptions that exist for religious bodies within other Discrimination Acts, at either State or Commonwealth level.”

Mr Porter also flagged other amendments to tighten up the legislation's drafting "based on suggestions that have come from both ends of this debate".

"People will disagree on which rights are more important than others and where to draw the lines between them."

Attorney-General Christian Porter flagged stronger protections for religious hospitals and aged care providers.
Attorney-General Christian Porter discusses stronger penalties for bosses who underpay workers. Source: AAP

Press freedom debate

The attorney general also turned his attention to the debate around press freedoms in Australia, describing this as a similar balancing act to consider.

The subject has been brought to attention through the Australian Federal Police’s raids on the ABC and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst.

He said the government would soon release a formal response to a review of whistle-blower laws but took a stronger position on the need to reform defamation legislation.

“I think it is fair to say that current defamation laws no longer strike the perfect balance between public interest journalism and protecting individuals from reputational harm.”

He said online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should be held to the same standards of other publications.

“It is clear that to have a level playing field between online publishers such as Facebook and Twitter and traditional media publishers reform in this area is very necessary,” he said.

With additional reporting from AAP

5 min read
Published 20 November 2019 at 4:43pm
By Tom Stayner