A NSW Labor MP has launched a multi-party Parliamentary group to promote religious freedom and work towards establishing religious freedom laws in the state.
Labor’s Member for Bankstown, Tania Mihailuk, launched the Parliamentary Friends for Religious Freedom Group this month with co-chair and Coalition Minister for Finance Damien Tudehope and other colleagues.
About 30 upper and lower house MPs have united with the aim of working towards the drafting of religious freedom laws for the state.
Bishop Richard Umbers represented Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP as a guest of honour at the first event, a forum at NSW Parliament House on 20 August, also attended by other religious leaders.
The group aims at addressing the lack of response by both major parties to the Ruddock Review recommendation that NSW, along with South Australia, update religious freedom laws to provide positive protections ensuring the right to hold and express religious views.
Religious people are only protected by exemptions in existing laws.
While the Federal Government is currently considering religious freedom legislation, Ms Mihailuk is concerned that NSW has “vacated this space” despite the fact it has the largest population in the country – at 66 per cent – which identifies as having a faith.
In NSW, religious protection is limited to exemptions in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 which do not provide direct protection for religious belief, practice or expression. Along with South Australia, NSW is the only state that does not directly outlaw discrimination on the basis of religion.
Ms Mihailuk, who belongs to Sydney’s Russian Orthodox community and whose electorate includes one of the country’s largest and active multi-faith populations, believes that’s not good enough.
“It’s important to understand that any religious discrimination law won’t replace anything in NSW. It will sit side by side with any legislation we have in NSW,” she said.
“We don’t know to what degree protections will get in [to] that law but what is interesting to me is that this issue wasn’t raised prior to the State election despite it being already on the table in December.
“We’re now virtually in September, close to a year since that review was finalised and it seems to me that both political parties are sitting idle on this issue.”
They’re content to wait for the Federal court to state its position with respect to the Israel Folau case or for federal legislation to take its course.
“I find that extraordinary, because if you’ve been given a recommendation to do something, why is it that they’re not prepared to even start some sort of inquiry, some sort of deliberation about it or, at the very least, flag that they intend to begin the process?”
The Israel Folau case and the recent “insulting” attempt to ram an extreme abortion bill through parliament without the usual processes showed that “things are moving very fast” with a steep decline in some quarters of respect for religious leaders and people of faith in general, she said.
She believes it’s important people of religious faith have confidence they won’t be subject to litigation for expressing their views, for example in an online recording of a presentation of discussion at a private gathering such as a church-related youth camp or other event.
“The idea that we’re already in a position now where we’ll have to be very careful about how we express our beliefs is very important,” she said.
She also thinks it is vital that stronger protections be afforded for religious schools and other organisations needing to hire staff who will support their values.
“And the way we have seen things transpire over the last few weeks with the abortion bill, there is a real atmosphere of completely disregarding the large proportion of people who do identify with their faith, and disregarding these leaders who people respect, admire and love.”
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