Religious discrimination bill should be passed with caveats, two inquiries recommend

Government MPs on two parliamentary inquiries said the draft religious discrimination bill should be passed by the Senate after amendments to some of the more contentious sections of the bill.

Scott Morrison says he plans to introduce an amendment to ensure students are not expelled from religious schools for supporting same-sex couples.

Scott Morrison says he plans to introduce an amendment to ensure students are not expelled from religious schools for supporting same-sex couples. Source: AAP

The proposed religious discrimination bill should be passed by the Senate with some caveats, government MPs involved in writing the official committee view across two parliamentary inquiries have concluded. 

A number of dissenting views were voiced by Liberal, Labor and Green MPs, but government MPs chairing the committee on legal and constitutional affairs and another on human rights concluded the draft legislation should be passed by the Senate, after amendments to clauses 11 and 12.

"The committee agrees that there is a balance to be struck between the competing values that inform Australian society, but it is not convinced that affording protection to people of religious faith (or of no religious faith) to express moderately held religious beliefs made in good faith would disturb that balance or skew it in favour of one particular attribute," the report from the legal and constitutional affairs committee said in the committee's official view written by Liberal senator Sarah Henderson. 

Similarly, the report from the human rights joint committee said in the final assessment it believes the legislation should be passed by the Senate with additional steps, like a more detailed explanatory memorandum.

"Ultimately the committee remains of the view that the passage of these bills remains central to remedying the weakness in our existing anti-discrimination legislation, and to protecting the fundamental right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief," said National MP Anne Webster in the section on the committee's official view.

The committee noted that the Australian Human Rights Commission is required to conduct a review of the operation of the legislation within two years of its commencement.

The legal affairs committee said amendments to clauses 11 and 12 - as recommended by legal scholars Anne Twomey and Nicholas Aroney - should be considered carefully before the bill's passage to the Senate to avoid the prospect of constitutional legal challenges.

Labor MPs said clause 11 on the interaction with state anti-discrimination laws, and clause 12 on the statement of belief need to be addressed so the legislation is "fit for purpose".

"It is important that the bills which do pass the Parliament are as well constructed as they can be," Labor MPs Raff Ciccone and Louise Pratt said in their section of the legal affairs committee report.

"Thus, we implore the government to work with the Opposition, crossbench and key stakeholders to address the concerns of submitters to this inquiry with a view to ensuring that the religious discrimination bills are fit for purpose." 

In a dissenting section of the report, Greens MP Janet Rice and Lidia Thorpe said they do not support the bill proceeding to the Senate.

They wanted the bill completely reformulated, including the removal of section 12, to "adopt a similar approach to other anti-discrimination legislation, operating as a shield not a sword". 

Christian Schools Australia welcomes inquiry reports

The government says the bill "will ensure Australians are protected from discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity – just as they are protected from discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race and disability".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he plans to put in place an amendment to protect LGBTIQ+ students from being expelled from religious schools based on their gender or sexuality.

He made the remarks on Thursday after Brisbane's Citipointe Christian College withdrew an enrolment contract requiring parents to sign a statement condemning homosexuality.

Church lobby groups - keen for the bill to be enshrined in law before the federal election - believe religious protections are necessary to ensure Australians can live freely in a time when these "freedoms" are increasingly under threat.

Mark Brown, director of public policy at Christian Schools Australia, said the organisation is pleased the official committee views endorsed the passage of the draft legislation to the Senate.

"It's not particularly surprising that they've both (committees) come out so strongly in favour of the passage of the legislation," he told SBS News.

"It is quite plain vanilla. It is pretty unremarkable legislation and very consistent similar legislation in the Commonwealth arena.

"The nature of religious belief as a protected belief through faith-based organisation has to be a little different to make sure it meets the international law requirements on protecting religious belief in a fullsome and adequate way."

Critics call for a complete overhaul of legislation

Critics of the bill said they do not think problematic sections like section 12 on the statement of belief can be improved with the amendments suggested in the committee reports.

They want the bill scrapped altogether and the drafting process begun anew, with consultation with civil society groups including ethnic minorities, women's groups, LGBTIQ+ advocates and people with disabilities.

Ghassan Kassisieh, legal director at Equality Australia, said the federal government has the ability to protect religious belief while not harming other minority groups, but this current draft legislation does not achieve that.

"It is only in the unconventional and the unorthodox way that the government has decided not to lift the standards up for everyone, but to lift up the standards for some, while undermining existing protections for women, LGBTI people, people with disabilities where this whole thing has come undone," Mr Kassisieh said.

"If they had done what they promised to do in protecting all of us equally, we would probably have a religious discrimination bill passed today in law that protects everyone equally."

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties said the whole process has revealed the importance of having a national Human Rights Act - or Bill of Rights - to deal with the issue of competing rights.

"In our view the bill should be withdrawn and taken back to the drawing board. And consult with the people who are going to be affected by it," said the council's president, Pauline Wright.

"Consult with the LGBTI community as well as religious groups, and ensure all the competing rights are properly taken into account - because at the moment, they're not.

"When you've got the ability to make a statement of belief that is going to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws, you've got something that is fundamentally flawed."

LGBTIQ+ advocate Rodney Croome says he was disappointed that the lived experience of people who spoke at the inquiries were downplayed in the official committees' view.

"The safeguards that are recommended by the inquiry do not go anywhere near far enough to ensure that there is not harmful speech in the name of religion," he said.

"I live in Tasmania and section 12 seeks to directly override the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act explicitly to allow harmful speech in the name of religion. Harmful, humiliating, insulting and offensive speech.

"The Tasmanian law works well. These reports completely misconstrue it. And it is very disappointing that they are so deeply biased."

LGBTIQ+ Australians seeking support with mental health can contact QLife on 1800 184 527 or visit  also has a list of support services.

7 min read
Published 4 February 2022 at 4:15pm
By Biwa Kwan
Source: SBS News