The Religious Discrimination Bill is due to be debated in parliament this week. It’s been a long time coming – Prime Minister Scott Morrison first promised a religious discrimination bill ahead of the last federal election more than three years ago.
In large part, the delay stems from widespread disagreement – both within parliament and in the community – over what the bill should contain. There is a broad consensus that a person should not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith or lack of faith. However, the extent to which religion should be a license to discriminate against others remains highly controversial.
As MPs return to Canberra, who backs the bill? Who opposes it? What could happen?
Two inquiries into the bill
After Morrison introduced the bill to parliament in December 2021, it was sent to the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committees.
On Friday, the two recommended passage of the bill – but only after a series of amendments. In their reports, both committees said there were serious doubts about the constitutional validity of certain elements of the bill.
Both commissions are chaired by government deputies. But any member of the committee can make additional comments or object to the main conclusions.
Bypass state protections
One of the main sticking points is a clause allowing religious schools to discriminate against staff members on religious grounds if the school has a written policy on its religious stance.
This provision also overrides existing federal, state, and territorial protections against discrimination and allows schools to fire LGBTIQ+ teachers.
Read more: Third chance? What has changed in the latest version of the Religious Discrimination Bill?
Attorney General Michaelia Cash’s office has acknowledged that discrimination against gay staff will be permitted, provided it is done under the guise of religious views.
Parliament’s Human Rights Committee said the provision “is an important step to […] maintain the religious ethos of the school” even though this “may limit the right to freedom of religion and equality and non-discrimination for others”.
Statements of belief
Another sticking point concerns statements of belief. This provision overrides all federal, state, and territorial anti-discrimination laws to protect “statements of belief” from legal consequences if they are based on honest religious opinion.
For example, belief statements might include a male boss telling an employee, “women should not be in leadership positions” or a doctor telling a patient, “disability is a punishment for sin.”
Parliament’s Human Rights Committee said the clause “works, on the whole, to reassure people of faith that they are capable of making moderately expressed statements of religious belief“.
But in additional comments on the Legal Affairs Committee report, Liberal New South Wales Senator Andrew Bragg warned:
Strong evidence has been provided to the committee that the statement of belief is impractical and undesirable. Many employers, religious organizations, anti-discrimination groups and legal experts oppose it.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is also concerned that this statement of belief provision could make it more difficult to deal with cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.
No protection for gay and trans children at school
On Thursday, Morrison promised he would amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the right of religious schools to expel LGBTIQ+ students.
This promise was met with fierce opposition from conservative groups: FamilyVoice Australia called it a “betrayal”. Christian Democratic Party campaign manager Lyle Shelton said Christian parents were “thrown under a bus”.
But even if Morrison keeps his promise of expulsion, that won’t stop religious schools from discriminating against gay and trans children while they’re in school, as long as they’re not expelled.
Religious groups are divided
It is important to note that religious groups do not agree with each other. Conservative faith groups like the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney support the bill.
Read more: The debate over religious discrimination is back, so why do we keep hearing about religious ‘freedom’?
But other religious groups disagree. The wider Anglican Church opposes the bill in its current form. Its public affairs committee says the bill gives “too much opportunity and unnecessary encouragement to harmful discriminatory behavior in the name of religion.”
Catholic welfare organizations feel the same way. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul says that “people will be hurt […] and will have no legal recourse,” while Sacred Heart Mission says the bill “will prevent people from accessing essential services.”
Minority religious groups are also concerned. The Buddhist Council of NSW believes the bill “could exacerbate religious discrimination against people from minority faith groups”.
The major parties are divided
Meanwhile, the bill’s path through parliament is still uncertain. Moderate Liberal MPs such as Dave Sharma, Trent Zimmerman and Bridget Archer are threatening to cross the floor unless the bill is watered down. Bragg called for the statement of belief provision to be removed and for protections to be introduced to protect both students and teachers from discrimination by religious schools.
Labour’s additional comments on the Legal Affairs Committee report warned that the Bill should not ‘remove existing protections which Australians already enjoy against other forms of discrimination’.
But the opposition is trying to march on both sides of the street. Labor members of parliamentary committees signed off on the main reports but added additional comments stressing the need for amendments. This allows Labor to say they support the bill and want the controversial elements changed – depending on who they are talking to.
If Morrison risks some of his own MPs crossing the floor and calling for a vote on the bill as it currently stands, Labor will have to declare its hand. Labor is expected to finalize its position for this week’s debate at its regular parliamentary meeting on Tuesday.
Where is this section?
There is almost no time left before the election to make amendments (or at least thoughtful amendments) and pass the bill. The Senate only sits five days before the election is called.
In the wake of the Citipointe Christian College scandal last week, it is unclear whether passing laws allowing discrimination against gays and transgender people is a winning vote for the Coalition or the Labor Party.
Apparently anticipating the bill’s passage, the Pentecostal school asked parents to sign “contracts” agreeing that being gay or trans is as “destructive to human relationships and society” as pedophilia, and that trans children would only be welcome if they were not present as the gender they identify with. A backlash from families has forced the school to back down and the headmaster is now on ‘extended leave’.
If Pentecostal families don’t support this stuff, it’s unlikely that families from more traditional religious groups would either. But if the bill passes without significant changes, we can expect to see many more situations like Citipointe.
The messy debate over religious discrimination in Australia continues.