Faith law doesn’t go far enough

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Attorney General Christian Porter, centre, unveils the government’s religious freedom legislation. Photo: AAP, Sam Mooy
Attorney General Christian Porter, centre, unveils the government’s religious freedom legislation. Photo: AAP, Sam Mooy

The federal government’s proposed religious discrimination laws have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by religious leaders and law experts.

The draft bill, which claims it will shield Australians from religious discrimination, was drawn up with minimal consultation from faith communities.

Releasing the bill in Sydney last week, Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said it would protect faith leaders such as Tasmanian Archbishop Julian Porteous who faced an anti-discrimination board after distributing a pamphlet on Catholic marriage to his Catholic schools.

He also said it would give people such as former rugby league player Israel Foleau “an avenue for complaint”.

The proposed laws seek to extend existing protections on the basis of race, age, sex and disability to provide protection for people against discrimination on the basis of their religion or religious belief, or lack thereof.

Mr Porter said the bill “does not create a positive right to freedom of religion” but supports the structure of existing anti-discrimination legislation.

If passed, the bill would also establish a new office of Freedom of Religion Commissioner. Archbishop Peter Comensoli, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference delegate for religious freedom, said the bishops support a religious discrimination act in principle, as an important acknowledgement in law of religious freedom.

“We want to ensure people with a religious faith like Archbishop Julian Porteous cannot be put before an anti-discrimination tribunal for respectfully explaining religious teaching on marriage or any other issue,” he said.

“We are reviewing the Government’s exposure draft bills and will be consulting with people in Catholic agencies on the implications of the draft legislation.

“We look forward to discussing the legislation with the Attorney General.”

Iain Benson, professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia
Iain Benson, professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia

A professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia Iain Benson said it was “essential” for Australia to have such a bill but that the proposed legislation “does not go nearly far enough”.

“Prior to this there was a yawning gap in what should many years ago have been brought to Australia,” he said.

“It’s very strange that other matters were given priority in law over religion such as sex, race, and age.

“Those are important, but religion has always been understood to be first of rights that incorporates the other ones and is a fundamental human right that applies to all people.

“What is really needed now is protection of conscience as well as religion.”

Meanwhile, a separate process by the Australian Law Reform Commission of inquiring into religious exemptions to discrimination laws, for example those allowing schools to only hire teachers who will uphold the Catholic ethos, will only conclude with the publishing of a report in December 2020.

National vice president of the Australian Family Association Terri Kelleher said she was “very concerned” that the questions around faith-based schools and the ability for parents to educate their children according to their faith tradition, were being dealt with as a separate issue.

“These are areas where conflicts [relating to religious freedom] arise,” she said.

Mr Porter said the proposed laws protect people from being discriminated against, but will not give them “a licence to discriminate against other people, or engage in harassing or vilifying speech”.

Professor Benson said Australia faced a “particular anti-religious bias” at the present moment and that the bill and the debate around it is a test of whether the country will embrace a truly pluralistic society “of living together with people with whom we fundamentally disagree”.

A final draft bill is expected to be presented to Federal parliament in October.

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