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Bishops highlight gaps in freedom law

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Neurosurgeon Michael Murphy performs surgery on a patient at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. Health services remain “vulnerable to demands to provide services contrary to their beliefs”, say bishops. PHOTO: CNS

Australia’s Catholic bishops have told the Federal Government its proposed discrimination legislation fails to adequately protect religious people and faith-based organisations.

In a submission to the government on the second draft of its religious discrimination legislation, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) said the bill was an improvement on the first draft but pointed out several concerns. The proposed legislation does not offer protection for people with a religious faith who work for small businesses or the government, they said.

As currently drafted, the bill provides a slightly higher level of religious discrimination protection for employees in large corporations, which would result in “religious freedom being not a universal human right, but something which depends on where a person works”, they said in their 31 January submission.

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The bishops said that even the increased obligations on larger employers were problematic because it allows large employers to engage in religious discrimination so as to avoid “unjustifiable financial hardship”.

“It also encourages secondary boycotts, sponsorship withdrawals and similar actions that would enliven the ‘unjustifiable financial hardship’ exemption set out in the draft legislation,” they said in their 31 January submission.

“This is an inappropriate way to recognise a universal human right, because such rights should not be dependent on external factors.”

The bishops’ submission was one of more than 6000 made so far on two bill drafts to Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter, with the National Catholic Education Commission, the Australian Association of Christian Schools, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, the Human Rights Law Alliance and others also calling for wider protections.

Sent on behalf of the bishops by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli of Melbourne, the bishops said the bill in its current form could lead to the curtailing of personal statements of belief inside and outside an employee’s workplace.

Smaller religious faith groups are also excluded from the protections afforded by the proposed bill, they said. Archbishop Comensoli is the ACBC spokesperson for religious freedom.

Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter, at centre. PHOTO: AAP, Sam Mooy

The bishops welcomed a change to allow religious hospitals and aged care providers to employ staff who share the same faith or will support their mission.

However they also called for stronger protections for conscientious objection for health and aged care providers and organisations who “remain vulnerable to demands that they provide services contrary to their beliefs”.

In the submission they said it is “alarming” that in some places opponents of the bill are already suggesting amendments to state legislation to render proposed protections ineffective.

“For the Federal Government to find consistency on religious freedom, and specifically on protections from discrimination on religious grounds for individuals and organisations, it is preferable that the Bill is universally applicable,” they said.

Speaking at the Red Mass for the commencement of the legal year at St Mary’s Cathedral on 3 February, Bishop Richard Umbers noted several current threats to religious freedom.

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