Religious leaders offered qualified support to the Federal Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, set to be released this week and tabled in Parliament, but are dissatisfied with the removal of more robust provisions to protect religious belief.
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, published a joint statement on 19 November with the heads of major faiths and Christian denominations in support of the Bill.
“We are grateful that the Government has engaged in extensive consultations with a diverse group of faith leaders in relation to the latest draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill,” the statement said.
“Although we have not seen the Bill, we understand from our discussions with the Government that some of the measures present in earlier exposure drafts have been removed, such as the protections against employer codes of conduct that restrict religious speech outside the workplace [the so-called ‘Folau clause’], and the conscience protection for healthcare professionals
“We would have preferred that these protections had been retained in some form.” The Bill has reportedly undergone significant revisions in response to lobbying from LGBTI groups, who claim it will grant a “right to discriminate” under the pretense of religious speech.
Yet they remain dissatisfied with the watered-down legislation, with Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown telling the ABC it retained some of its “worst elements”.
“In broad terms, it overrides existing protections for vulnerable groups, it compromises access to judgement-free healthcare and inclusive workplaces,” Brown said.
Despite having promised in the lead-up to the 2019 election to introduce such legislation, following the 2018 Ruddock Review on Religious Freedom, the Coalition has split over the Bill.
A “tense” Coalition party room meeting held on 23 November nevertheless managed to reach consensus sufficient for the bill to be introduced into Parliament.
Liberal moderates, including Warren Entsch, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman, were not convinced the Bill was necessary, or were concerned it could lead to a backlash among LGBT constituents in blue-ribbon seats.
Supporters of the Bill included George Christensen, Matt Canavan, Melissa McIntosh, and Lucy Wicks, according to reports.
Earlier threats by some MPs to cross the floor have been reportedly withdrawn.
The Bill is expected to be referred to a Senate inquiry and, if it is passed, will be subject to further review by the Australian Law Reform Commission after a year.
Despite the widespread dissatisfaction with the bill, Archbishop Comensoli and his co-signatories have called for bipartisan support. “With the more controversial measures reportedly having been removed from the Bill, there appears to be no sensible reason for it to generate a deeply polarising debate over religion,” their statement said.