The Prime Minister has tabled his government’s Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 in parliament – fulfilling a commitment it took to the last federal election.
The Government describes the new discrimination laws as “a shield not a sword”, and says the bill strikes the right balance between freedom and responsibility.
The bill is designed to protect people of faith, and under the proposed laws, a statement of belief made in good faith, would not be classified as discrimination.
Introducing the bill to parliament, Scott Morrison said, faith is more than just a word, “it’s about the heart… it’s about the soul, and it’s about the spirit – it’s not about the state or the marketplace”.
Mr Morrison said people of faith have been met with opposition throughout history.
“History has shown that dictators and autocrats have never felt at ease with people of faith amongst their ranks – in their societies; they have never felt at ease with faith and religion; they have never felt comfortable with human choice, with human dignity, and the refusal of individuals to give to the state what is the proper place of the Divine.”
The bill has seen two new revisions, including the removal of the ‘Folau clause’ – which would have given employees more protection regarding statements of belief outside of work.
Protections for medical professionals to make conscientious objections have also been dropped – meaning they cannot refuse to provide treatment on religious grounds.
Attorney General, Michaelia Cash says, she worked closely with religious leaders, as well as Equality Australia, to reach what she says is a balanced outcome.
“I believe, that this bill will give Australians of faith confidence – confidence to be themselves, and confidence in the country they belong to,” said Ms Cash.
The Attorney General says the bill ensures that people cannot be persecuted for “moderately expressing a reasonable opinion”, as long as the opinion is made as a statement of belief.
The bill also provides protection for institutions run by faith-based organisations – like schools – to prioritise employment of people from the same faith.
It includes a “statement of belief” clause, shielding Australians from state anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.
The Australian Christian Lobby’s National Director of Politics, Wendy Francis, says more clarity however, needs to be given around the wording.
“Some of the wording says that employers can ‘prefer’ to employ people of the same faith or the same ethos,” said Mrs Francis, “we’re not sure what that word ‘prefer’… how far that would go, so we’d like to see that strengthened”.
Deputy Director of the ACL, Dan Flynn, believes the bill is a good starting point in protecting people of faith, but says there is much more work to be done.
“It does some work in signalling that discrimination against people for their faith is wrong – that people’s faith is precious to them and should be protected by legislation,” said Mr Flynn.
The ACL will continue lobbying members of parliament before a senate committee starts investigating the detail of the bill.
There are concerns from some Christian leaders that removing the ‘Folau clause’ from the bill, means there is less protection for what employees can say publicly, outside of work.
“The bill is shorn of some of the important things that we hoped it would have – principally, public statements of faith from being subjected to discipline within their workplace,” said Dan Flynn.
Wendy Francis says while they are disappointed the ‘Folau clause’ was removed, she still believes the bill offers greater protection of free speech.
The bill was promised by the Coalition four years ago following the same-sex marriage debate.
“This bill is a fulfillment of the commitment that the Prime Minister made to the Australian people, to protect religious freedom, and certainly ensuring free speech, and civil respectful discussion and debate – that is important for all Australians,” said Michaelia Cash.
The bill will be debated in the House of Representatives next week.