The controversial religious discrimination bill has been revealed. Here's what's in it

A controversial proposal to give religious people greater protection from discrimination laws is set be introduced into parliament by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Parliament House in Canberra.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s long-awaited religious discrimination bill has finally been released, outlining how the federal government intends to enshrine greater protections for people of faith.

The controversial laws have been subject to intense debate during their consultation period over divergent views on whether extra religious protections can be legislated without impinging on the rights of others.

The laws were an election commitment first promised in 2019 born out of the contentious debate over the legislation of same-sex marriage in 2017. 

The final version of the bill — expected to be introduced to parliament this week  confirms that some of the more contentious aspects of the legislation have been removed.

But despite the insistence of several faith leaders that the laws are needed to increase protections for people of faith - the legislation continues to evoke concern from LGBTIQ+ advocates.

What’s in the bill?

The bill states that the intention of the law is to eliminate “so far as is possible” discrimination against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs.

This would involve making it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of their faith in their personal and professional working lives or access to education. 

The laws include a provision to shield Australians who make statements of belief from state anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.

This measure outlines that a moderately expressed religious view that does not incite hatred or violence would not “constitute vilification”.

“[If] the statement is made, in good faith, by written or spoken words or other communication (other than physical contact), the person [and] is of a belief that the person genuinely considers to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion,” the bill reads.

The laws also outline that the statements would not be permitted if they were determined “malicious” or that “a reasonable person would consider would threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group.”

The bill would provide similar protections for people who do not hold a religious belief.

Rules for religious institutions 

The bill also retains a provision that gives religious institutions the right to preference the hiring of people aligned with their faith.

The protection had been sought by organisations, including private schools that believe personal faith should be a factor in hiring teachers.

The laws state that religious-run aged care homes, accommodation providers and disability service providers can prioritise the hiring of staff from their own faith.

“It is not discrimination for a religious hospital, aged care facility, accommodation provider or disability service provider to seek to preserve a religious ethos amongst its staff by making faith-based decisions in relation to employment. Such conduct is therefore not unlawful,” the bill reads. 

But the bill says in relation to religious education institutions such as schools and universities these “must have a publicly available policy in relation to conduct in the context of employment.”

It states that these institutions would not contravene state or territory law if it: “gives preference, in good faith, to persons who hold or engage in a particular religious belief or activity.”

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The laws add that these policies must outline the “religious body’s position in relation to particular religious beliefs or activities and explain how the position will be enforced by the religious body.”

Education Minister Alan Tudge has said this would not constitute an ability for example a religious school to discriminate against a gay teacher.

The ‘Israel Folau’ clause

A so-called Israel Folau clause that would have given individuals in large companies or organisations legal protection from termination as a result of expressing their religious beliefs has been removed.

But the bill does prevent professional bodies from restricting members over their religious beliefs and statements. 

However, this would not apply if the decision of the qualifying body is an “essential requirement of the profession, trade or occupation.”

The protection also would not apply to a statement of belief determined to be “malicious” or that a “reasonable person would consider would threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group.”

What happens now?

The bill would also create a new office known as the Religious Discrimination Commissioner to operate inside the Human Rights Commission.

A clause that would have allowed health providers to refuse treatment on the basis of “conscientious objection” has also been removed.

The bill passed a Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday but has continued to face concerns from some moderate Liberal MPs.

Mr Morrison is expected to personally introduce the legislation to parliament this week in a sign of his personal commitment to delivering the change. 

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has said Labor wants time to consider the proposal that is yet to be made public.

"I'm of the view that people should be allowed to, of course, practise their faith, that should be respected," he told reporters on Wednesday.

"[But] not discriminating on the basis of faith shouldn't be discriminating on the basis of other people. We'll look at the bill but I haven't seen it."

It is expected the laws won't pass by the end of this year, as they will go to a Senate inquiry.

What’s been the reaction?

Critics have raised concerns the bill threatens to override “hard-fought” protections for vulnerable groups in existing state and territory laws.

Equality Australia CEO Anna Brown recognised while improvements to the bill had been made, she said “some of the worst parts remain”.

“This bill will license people to say statements in the name of religion that would be discrimination today but tomorrow under this bill they would be lawful,” she told SBS News.

She said she was also concerned about the proposed changes to the rights of religious institutions.

“We need to look very carefully to make sure the discrimination that is allowed in this bill by religious organisations is fair and reasonable and doesn’t inadvertently target LGBTI people,” she said.

In a joint statement, the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the Australian National Imams Council earlier this week argued the scaled-back version of the bill “deserved bipartisan support”.

“Protections against religious discrimination at a federal level are long overdue,” the statement said.

“Faith leaders would welcome the introduction of substantive protections for people of faith against faith-based discrimination.”


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Published 24 November 2021 at 7:02am, updated 24 November 2021 at 9:53am
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News