Australia

New laws to combat religious discrimination to be introduced

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The government’s response to the Ruddock review will make it unlawful to discriminate against someone for their religious beliefs.

Religious discrimination will soon be unlawful in Australia under new laws announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday, as the government unveiled its long-awaited response to the Ruddock review.

The government will draft a new Religious Discrimination Act, making ‘religious beliefs’ a protected characteristic and extending similar protections to those that apply to race, age, gender, sexuality and disability.

But unlike the controversial Section 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act, it will not be unlawful to “offend, insult or humiliate” someone based on their religious beliefs.

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Religious discrimination will soon be unlawful in Australia under new laws
Religious discrimination will soon be unlawful in Australia under new laws

The prime minister and Attorney-General Christian Porter announced the laws in Sydney, with the draft legislation to be presented early in the new year and taken to the 2019 election as a Coalition promise.

"For those who think that Australians of religious faith don't feel that the walls have been closing in on them for a while, they're clearly not talking to many people in religious communities," Mr Morrison said. 

"It's about protecting Australians and an Australian's right to believe in what they want to believe."

Earlier, he told The Australian, “Australia is a secular democracy but that does not mean that Australians are a godless people”.

“Australians have a diversity of faith and religious backgrounds and these should all be respected.”

The prime minister cited the example of “an attempt to prosecute the Tasmanian Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous for upholding Catholic teachings about marriage”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday.
SBS News

Labor frontbencher Mark Butler said his party was open to the legislation in principle but would wait to see the detail.

The new law would give people legal options if they felt they had been fired from a job or otherwise disadvantaged because of their genuinely-held religious beliefs.

The laws have been somewhat expected since the Ruddock review was handed to the then-Turnbull government in May. Scott Morrison then flagged a new religious discrimination law in the first months of his prime ministership.

The review, commissioned in the wake of the vote to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia, has not been formally released but was leaked in full in October, sparking a fierce national debate over discrimination against gay students and teachers at religious schools.

Both sides of parliament have publically agreed that some exemptions in the Sexual Discrimination Act that allow religious schools to discriminate against gay students should be overturned – although there is no agreement on gay teachers.

But the parliament rose for 2018 without an agreement even on the students.

The Coalition wanted to insert new amendments that would enshrine a school’s right to teach its religious beliefs – even if that belief was that homosexuality was wrong under religious tenants, for instance.

The Morrison government will seek to move beyond the impasse by referring the question over gay students to the impartial Australian Law Reform Commission for review.

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