Christian leaders speak out against proposed religious discrimination laws

Christian Porter is consulting his coalition colleagues on a religious discrimination bill. Source: AAP

An Anglican priest renowned for his provocative billboards has weighed into the religious freedom debate.

"True religious freedom is the freedom not to discriminate" reads the billboard outside Fr Rod Bower's Anglican church in Gosford on NSW's Central Coast.

The Anglican priest is renowned for using the church sign to deliver political messages, rather than service times, and as debate flares on an imminent religious discrimination bill, he has again weighed in. 

Father Rod Bower (centre) is worried proposed religious discrimination legislation will provide cover to break the law in the name of religion.
Father Rod Bower (centre) is worried proposed religious discrimination legislation will provide cover to break the law in the name of religion.

"It is a deep concern for me that people could use religious cover to marginalise already marginalised groups or discriminate against those already discriminated against," Fr Bower told SBS News. 

While the Australian Christian Lobby is pressuring the government to strengthen protections for religious views in the wake of rugby player Israel Folau's sacking, Fr Bower said they don't speak for all Christians.

He's concerned that Attorney-General Christian Porter's proposal to base new laws on existing anti-discrimination laws such as the sex discrimination act goes too far and could give extremists protection to break the law in the name of religion. 

"Our existing discrimination laws are all based around things over which we have no choice; our gender, our race, our disability, sexuality.

"When you start to give the same weight under law to some things that we do have choices about such as our religion, it gives equal category to something that is not necessarily equal."

While he said the freedom to choose religion should be enshrined in law, the freedom to manifest that religion was not absolute.  

The Australian Law Reform Commission is examining the framework of religious exemptions in anti-discrimination laws as requested by the Attorney-General, but the government has decided to pursue new legislation before the commission delivers its final report. 

"There does seem to be undue haste," Fr Bower said, urging the government to hold off and promote a wider discussion that would include consideration of a bill of rights.  

"There is no evidence that people's freedom to practice their religion is under threat in this country."

His comments come after social justice advocate Tim Costello told fellow Christians to "suck it up" like Jesus. 

The Baptist minister, who is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, told The Guardian there was no need for a religious freedom act as some Coalition MPs were pushing for. 

Anti-gambling activist Tim Costello says Jones's "nasty hectoring" of Ms Herron and his "sheer brutality" shouldn't surprise anyone.
Social justice advocate Tim Costello says Christians need to "suck it up".

“I don’t think there is a risk of persecution – Christians need to calm down,” Mr Costello said.

“Jesus didn’t go around demanding legislation to protect his rights. Jesus didn’t advocate for freedom of religion legislation.”

'Laws should be a shield, not a sword'

LGBTIQ+ advocates are alarmed by reports the federal government is planning to use new religious discrimination laws to stop employers from sacking workers for expressing religious views. 

Under the laws being finalised, it's unlikely Rugby Australia would have been able to sack former star player Israel Folau for expressing anti-gay views on social media. 

Equality Australia's Legal Advocacy Director Lee Carnie said that would stop businesses from providing a safe workplace for all people.

“Anti-discrimination laws should be a shield, not a sword," they said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Attorney-General Christian Porter before a Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter are finalising a Religious Discrimination Bill.

"It sounds like the government’s proposal would prevent employers from being able to protect their businesses from the damaging public actions of employees.”

“Employers should be able to provide workplaces for all employees that are safe, healthy, and inclusive. The examples given by the Attorney-General show that he plans to go further with religious discrimination laws to interfere with employers’ ability to uphold their values."

Carnie called for the Attorney-General to release the bill for broader consultation. 

“This drip-feed of incomplete information is causing panic for the communities who could be targeted by this law, such as single mums, divorced people, women and LGBTIQ+ people,” Carnie said.

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