Australians reject discrimination based on religious belief: new research



Since the change of government in the federal election in May, the fate of the controversial religious discrimination legislation remains uncertain.

There is a bipartisan consensus that Commonwealth law should protect people of different faiths from discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.

But Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has not committed to a timetable for enacting new legislation. His government also moved away from controversial areas of this policy promoted under the Morrison government which emphasized “religious freedoms”.

The new government could be closer to the public mood.

Read more: A ‘Christian nation’ is no more: Why Australia’s religious right is losing political battles even when it wins elections

Results from the 2022 Australian Cooperative Elections Study (ACES) confirm that voters do not see religious discrimination as a significant issue. Only a minority (27%) agree that “Australians who hold religious beliefs face a lot of discrimination”. A majority disagree (31%) or are neutral (42%). Clear majorities oppose religious freedom protections deemed to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ people.

Much of this controversy has centered on schools. Since the advent of anti-discrimination laws in the mid-1970s, religious schools have enjoyed exemptions allowing them to refuse to employ staff or accept students because of their sexuality or gender identity – if it is against school ethics.

Despite these exemptions, campaigns to strengthen “religious freedoms” intensified following marriage equality legislation in 2017. The debate was further inflamed by the sacking of rugby player Israel Folau for posting comments about gay people and others on social media, in line with his Christian faith, in 2019.

Read more: How could an apology figure in the new religious freedom bill?

In response, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison drafted “religious freedoms” bills in 2019 and 2021. The latter was based on a campaign promise to override state and territory laws to protect “statements of belief” made by individuals “in accordance with the doctrines, principles, beliefs or teachings of their religion”.

The bill was dramatically shelved in February 2022. Five moderate Liberal MPs walked across the floor in the House of Representatives. They opposed the bill’s protections for potentially anti-LGBTIQ+ comments without any accompanying commitment to protect transgender children from exclusion from schools. The bill was doomed in the Senate.

The storm unleashed by Israel Folau’s social media posts has sparked an ongoing debate about religious discrimination.
David Crosling/AAP

Australia’s conservative Christian lobby has in turn targeted moderate liberals during the election campaign, portraying them as opponents of religious protection.

Our new data reinforces the extent of voter resistance to aspects of the “religious freedoms” agenda in the run-up to the election.

ACES asked voters a series of questions about religious schools and the conditions of staff and students. A clear majority (67%) disagreed that ‘religious schools should be able to refuse to employ staff because of their sexual orientation’. Only 15% agreed.

Almost identical results were reported for the statement about refusing to “employ staff because of their transgender identity” (65% disagree and 16% agree). Voters also disagreed by very similar margins that religious schools should be able to “exclude students based on their sexual orientation” or “transgender identity”.

There were predictable demographic differences for all four statements. Women consistently disagreed between 74% and 79%. Men also disagreed, but with smaller majorities (56% to 59% range). Younger voters were the most likely to disagree, while the majority of voters aged 65 and over also disagreed.

These results suggest that Morrison misjudged the election mood. He defended Warringah Liberal candidate Katherine Deves, whose views on sport and transgender identity sparked backlash against the Coalition.

If the Coalition sought to win over conservatives in the metropolitan periphery electorates, its efforts were unsuccessful on election night.

Indeed, 39% of ACES respondents agreed that “Australian politics is too focused on the rights of religious people”. Only 21% disagreed with the statement and 40% expressed a neutral opinion.

American-style religious politics seems to have limited appeal in a country that is increasingly moving away from organized religion. Last month’s census results showed that 39% of Australians do not identify as religious.

Responding to a similar question in ACES, 49% identified as non-religious. At the same time, Australians are coming on board with sexual and gender diversity. They reject the protections of religious organizations to exclude people from employment and school on these grounds.

No doubt the Albanian government will assess this reality as it considers its next steps to address religious discrimination in law.

Survey note: The Australian Cooperative Election Survey (ACES) is a collaborative project involving Australian universities that used YouGov panel data and methodologies to study the 2022 federal election. The survey was conducted online in May 2022 with an overall sample of 5,988 voters and 1,044 voters for the religion module. The data was weighted to reflect the population and the methodology is detailed here.

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