Australian Catholic bishops and law experts are concerned the Federal Government’s attempt to draft a religious freedom bill without early consultation with religious leaders will result in ineffective protections for believers.
“The passing of religious discrimination legislation may be a symbolic gesture towards people of faith that they are an important part of the Australian community, but only well-crafted legislation born of rigorous consultation and sound principle will ensure that this symbolism amounts to real protection,” said Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.
A 5 June letter from Archbishop Fisher offering to engage with Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter on the issue has received no reply.
Following the first of a series of workshops on the legislation with Coalition MPs last Friday, Mr Porter said that consultations will turn to other stakeholders only after they are complete in several weeks.
“These consultations with colleagues will continue over coming weeks and will then shift to religious bodies and other stakeholders, as the draft bill is refined further in response to issues raised ahead of presentation to parliament in coming months,” Mr Porter said.
The Catholic Weekly contacted Mr Porter’s office but he provided no further comment.
“I am pleased that we are having a conversation about religious freedom in Australia,” said Melbourne Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli, the bishops’ delegate for religious liberty.
“My hope from the Government is for meaningful involvement in the consultation they will wish to have with religious communities. Only by that kind of consultation can we shape effective legislation that protects and fosters freedom of religion.
“Now is a moment in which we, as Catholics, are poised ready for the consultation needed to make sure any legislation is reasonable and healthy for all religious believers.”
Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the School of Law at Notre Dame University, Sydney, said he would encourage the Federal Government to consult religious groups on any draft legislation as soon as possible.
“Legislating in this area requires very careful thought and very thoughtful drafting,” he said.
“The Coalition is to be commended in working towards the introduction of this missing piece to our protections from discrimination, but it is unfortunate that widespread consultation with religious groups has not yet taken place.
“The main reason is that although most people will agree with the general concept, there will be numerous disagreements about extent and detail,” he said.
“This means that wide consultation before the presentation of the bill is incredibly important, to try and nail down positions.
“But even with this, it will have to be accepted that any bill once introduced will have to be minutely debated.
“Freedom of religion can never be a take it or leave it proposition.”
Archbishop Fisher offered to engage on this important matter “at the earliest opportunity, so that we can ensure women and men of faith have the freedom to continue making their essential contributions to our community without fear of discrimination or of being the victims of ‘lawfare’.
“With a quarter of Australians identifying as Catholic and more than half as Christians, and as the providers of education, healthcare and welfare to a very large proportion of the Australian population, you can appreciate the Catholic Church’s interest in the course of any conversations about freedom of religion,” he said.
“We hope there will be many opportunities for discussions with leaders and representatives of the Church and its many agencies before any bill comes to parliament.”
The controversial termination of Israel Folau’s contract by Rugby Australia for social media posts quoting the Bible has increased pressure on the government to legislate for freedom of religion.