Monica Doumit: Some of us are still more equal than others

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Anyone is allowed to discriminate against religious believers in NSW. How is this consistent? PHOTO: CNS/Tyler Orsburn

NSW bans discrimination – but only for certain groups

LGBT advocacy groups are trying to stall the implementation of protections in NSW anti-discrimination laws for people of faith.

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act was passed in 1977 and provided protection for people against discrimination on the grounds of things like age, race, sex, disability and the like.
It has been amended over the years, with new categories of protection added to the list – for example, protection against discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality was added in 1982, and protection against discrimination on transgender grounds was added in 1996.

Essentially [LGBT advocacy groups] want the Government to ignore the Committee’s recommendations, shelve the Latham bill and send religious believers to the back of the line – again.”

Notably, protection on the basis of religious belief or activity was not included in 1977, nor was it included in any of the dozens of amendments since that time.

It is still perfectly legal in this state for a shop owner to turn a customer away, simply because they were a Catholic (or a Muslim or a Buddhist etc.)

Despite this, and even though discrimination on the basis of homosexuality and transgender identity has now been protected under NSW anti-discrimination laws for 25 years, LGBT advocacy groups are hoping to kick protections for religious believers down the road a little further still.

Back in 2018, the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom recommended that NSW change its anti-discrimination laws to include ‘religious belief or activity’ as a protected attribute. It wasn’t the first review to make this recommendation, but it was the most comprehensive in recent memory.

For two years, the NSW Government did nothing with this recommendation. It wasn’t until One Nation’s Mark Latham took the matter on by introducing a private members’ bill to make the necessary changes to anti-discrimination laws that the matter started to get some traction.

Latham’s bill got sent to a parliamentary committee for review and inquiry, and the public were able to either complete a brief, online survey or make detailed submissions on the proposed changes.

Almost 20,000 people responded to the survey, with more than two-thirds of them backing Latham’s Bill. The Committee reviewed the detailed submissions, heard testimony from interested parties, and recommended that some minor amendments be made to the Latham bill and be adopted and passed by the Government.

The Government is due to provide its response to those recommendations next month.
A number of LGBT advocacy groups were among those who made submissions to the inquiry and were invited to appear in person before the Committee as well.

In their submissions and in their oral testimony, these groups called for a holistic review of NSW anti-discrimination laws, rather than amending it to include protections for religious believers.

While a ‘holistic review’ of anti-discrimination laws might sound like a good idea, it would have the effect of protections for religious believers against discrimination being further delayed.

A comprehensive review of anti-discrimination laws would take years, and its implementation into law would be dependent on the political appetite to make any meaningful changes to the law. As we have seen at both a federal and state level, such political appetite is sadly lacking, even from so-called conservative governments.

The Committee itself noted that waiting for a holistic review of anti-discrimination laws would simply result in a delay to offering protection for religious believers. For this reason, the Committee recommended that the law first be changed to protect religious belief and activity, and then a broader review of anti-discrimination laws be conducted.

There is no need to delay already long overdue protections for people of faith.

Undoubtedly dissatisfied with this recommendation, this past week, the same LGBT advocacy groups that made submissions to, and appeared before, the inquiry on the Latham bill, penned an open letter to the Attorney-General, calling for an independent review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 “as a matter of priority.”

Essentially, they want the Government to ignore the Committee’s recommendations, shelve the Latham bill, and send religious believers to the back of the line – again.

For good measure, they also want this ‘comprehensive’ review to remove some of the few existing protections for religious groups (most critically, the ability for faith-based organisations to require employees to publicly adhere to the teachings of their employer), which could end up leaving religious believers with even fewer protections than we have now.

The Committee process found that more than two-thirds of those who bothered to make their views known on the Bill were in favour of it, and – after reading detailed submissions and four days of hearings – the Committee agreed that the Bill was timely.

The Premier and the Attorney-General should not reward the attempted circumvention of the Committee process by these groups, and should finally give religious believers equal treatment under anti-discrimination laws.

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