PM flags extension of anti-discrimination laws to cover religious beliefs

File: Scott Morrison on a visit to the Lakemba Mosque, in south west Sydney, on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015 Source: AAP

The prime minister has revived the religious freedom issue months after a review was handed to his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull.

Prime minister Scott Morrison has given his clearest indication so far that his government will change discrimination laws so religious beliefs are considered a protected attribute - just like race, gender and disability.

Mr Morrison said he would unveil his response to Philip Ruddock’s report on religious freedoms, commissioned by the Turnbull government, in the coming months.

The report was handed to Mr Turnbull in May, but the contents have not been publicly released.

In two separate interviews on Monday, Mr Morrison suggested a change to anti-discrimination laws would be a central pillar of the reforms.

“I want to make sure that if people have particular religious views, they won't be discriminated against,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program.

“Just like people of different genders or people of races will not be discriminated against.

“Religious freedom, it doesn't get more serious than that when it comes to liberties.”

It is currently illegal under Australian law to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, age, disability, gender or sexual identity in various public spaces, mostly in the areas of employment and education.

But religion is not currently a ‘protected attribute’ under the laws, and Australia does not have a bill of rights like the United States.

This is a file image of Liberal backbencher Philip Ruddock.
Former attorney-general Philip Ruddock has led a panel of experts examining religious freedom. (AAP)

Mr Ruddock’s panel received tens of thousands of public submissions from faith groups, secular organisations, legal experts and members of the public, with more than 16,000 contributing in the first two months of the inquiry.

The volume prompted the prime minister to grant an extension to give the panel more time. 

The panel also held a series of closed meetings with stakeholders around the country. Guests were controversially promised they could speak freely because ‘no record’ of their words would be kept.

The panel was set up in the weeks before same-sex marriage passed intolaw , when Mr Turnbull was under pressure from conservative colleagues over what they described as a growing threat to their religious rights.

Mr Ruddock, himself a former attorney general, was joined on the panel by a group of experts in religion and the law: Jesuit priest Frank Brennan, former high-profile judge Dr Annabelle Bennett, Human Rights Commission President Rosalind Croucher and constitutional lawyer Nicholas Aroney.

Mr Morrison said he also wanted to protect the rights of faith-based schools.

“I want parents to continue to have a complete right of choice when they send their kids to a faith-based school, that the faith-based nature of those schools is protected,” he said.

The prime minister told 2GB’s Alan Jones there was “no freedom in this country at all” unless there was “freedom of faith”.

“It is the most profound thing,” he said, flagging “announcements over the next few months”.

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