Opponents of religious freedom are predictably rending their garments over the federal Religious Discrimination Bill, tabled in Parliament this week by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The government already seems to be cowering to pressure from within its own party, and from LGBT activists, to water down the already-compromised protections offered by the bill.
It is also being pushed to remove religious freedoms that currently exist in our laws so we will end up in a worse position with the bill than without it.
The bill prohibits discrimination on the grounds of a person’s religious belief or activity and only has some small differences when compared to other, vanilla anti-discrimination laws for sex, race, disability or age.
The first key difference is that the bill says that a religious organisation does not discriminate if it provides preference in employment to people of its own faith.
“Basically, it protects Archbishop Porteous but not Israel Folau. It does nothing to stop an employer from sacking you for a religious belief expressed outside work or on social media.”
So, a Catholic school can prioritise Catholic candidates over Muslim ones, atheist organisations can reject Anglican applicants etc. It only applies to religion; it doesn’t permit discrimination on any other grounds, and so should not be controversial.
The second key difference is that the bill says a statement of religious belief made in good faith and that is not malicious, threatening, intimidating, harassing or vilifying is not considered to be discrimination against another person.
Basically, it protects Archbishop Porteous but not Israel Folau. It does nothing to stop an employer from sacking you for a religious belief expressed outside work or on social media.
The final key difference is the provision of a mechanism for a federal government with the backbone to do it to override state-based laws that aim to take away these limited protections for religious schools.
That’s it. That’s all the bill does.
If anything, it is notable for what it leaves out and who it leaves behind.
As I already mentioned, the bill does nothing to protect Israel Folau, or the many less-famous people of faith who are worried about losing their jobs if they make their religious beliefs known.
A protection from losing your job on the basis of your beliefs was in the previous draft of the bill, but was removed because it was too difficult to “sell” politically.
Protections for the conscience rights of religious medical professionals or medical institutions were also cut from the bill, leaving no protection for conscience when it comes to things like abortion, euthanasia and gender reassignment surgery.
Nor does it do anything to wind back conversion therapy laws, even ones as extreme as Victoria’s, which go so far as to prohibit even reasonable situations.
“The bill doesn’t even scratch the surface of the relentless attacks on religion and religious believers in this country, and still, it is too much for those opposed to religious faith to take.”
In Victoria, if a man is tempted to cheat on his wife and asks a member of his church to pray that he has the courage to remain faithful, the law makes this situation unlawful.
It also does nothing to protect the sanctity of the confessional seal.
The bill doesn’t even scratch the surface of the relentless attacks on religion and religious believers in this country, and still, it is too much for those opposed to religious faith to take.
As soon as the bill is passed, the Australian Law Reform Commission will begin an inquiry into anti-discrimination laws.
The commission is tasked with inquiring into and reporting on reforms that would “limit or remove altogether (if practicable) religious exemptions to prohibitions on discrimination, while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to reasonably conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos.”
In other words, the inquiry is set up to recommend the removal of existing protections for the way we run our institutions.
What does this mean in practice? It means that religious schools and other organisations will no longer be able to refuse employment to those in same-sex marriages or who have transitioned their gender, on the grounds that they have done so.
Instead, they will only be able to refuse employment on the basis that the person did not share the beliefs of the Catholic Church on these matters.
That might sound like a simple change, giving the same result, but it will mean many more of these cases get litigated.
We will be required to demonstrate to anti-discrimination tribunals and the Australian Human Rights Commission that the conflict with the employee was over belief or conduct, and had nothing to do with a person’s marital status or gender identity.
“Their pre-tabling advocacy has made sure it has already been gutted of its most important protections … and then the Law Reform Commission inquiry will strip freedoms we currently enjoy out of our hands.”
That argument might be a little hard to make, given far too many of our employees dissent from Church teaching. And it’s not like these human rights tribunals are already big fans of religion either.
We stand to lose more from the Law Reform Commission inquiry than we have to gain from this Religious Discrimination Bill.
While the LGBT activists are publicly denouncing the Bill, I imagine they are celebrating it privately.
Their pre-tabling advocacy has made sure it has already been gutted of its most important protections, their current lobbying is aimed to further weaken them through the upcoming Senate inquiry, and then the Law Reform Commission inquiry will strip freedoms we currently enjoy out of our hands.
Don’t be fooled by politicians, media or LGBT activists telling you this is a victory for people of faith and that the election promise of “fixing” religious freedom has now been fulfilled.
It might have been all they could feasibly achieve politically, but don’t let the government or the opposition off the hook for providing meaningful protections for religious faith. If we don’t stand up for our rights, how can we expect politicians to?