New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet has promised a balanced approach to proposed gay conversion laws to ensure that religious freedom is respected while genuinely harmful practices are banned.
Addressing nearly 200 people at a town hall meeting in Parramatta last night hosted by the state’s faith communities, Mr Perrottet said, “we will not ban prayer, we will not ban preaching.”
“That is fundamental to freedom of religion in this state and in this country,” he said.
“We can ban harmful practices and protect religious freedom in our state … it’s about a balanced approach.”
Mr Perrottet gave electroconvulsive therapy and food deprivation as examples of practices that would be banned.
Victoria passed similar legislation in 2021 that penalises a person who tries to suppress or change another person’s gender or sexuality with 10 years’ jail or fines up to $10,000.
Critics of the Victorian legislation said its definitions were so broad that it would silence Christian expressions of human sexuality by homilists, scripture teachers and parents.
“Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t just ban out-dated and insidious practices of coercion and harm, which we firmly reject,” the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, said in 2021.
“The bill also criminalises conversation between children and parents, interferes with sound professional advice, and silences ministers of religion from providing personal attention for individuals freely seeking pastoral care for complex personal situations.”
Mr Perrottet encouraged the NSW Religious Communities Advisory Council, which was formed in December, to play an instructive role in how their respective faiths are taught in public schools and to work with the government in ensuring religious freedom is upheld.
“There is no place for religious discrimination in our state and our modern society today,” he said.
“I don’t think that religious faith is something that should be tolerated, it should be celebrated … our diversity should be embraced … it should be about respecting other people’s views.”
While no one should be vilified or discriminated against on account of their faith, discrimination law-making is “very difficult and challenging” and could cause bigger problems than it attempts to solve, he said.
“We want to get it right. We’ve seen at a federal level previously what happens when you don’t get it right, when you don’t bring people with you,” Mr Perrottet said.
“We’ve engaged with the federal government in this space, we respect that they are working through these issues at the moment [through the Law Reform Commission].”
He also promised the leaders and voters of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths the government’s ongoing funding support for Special Religious Education in public schools and independent faith-based schools.
He said he would look into anecdotal evidence of shortages of chaplains in hospitals and prisons.
He announced $10 million in funding to support security at places of worship, schools and community centres and said donations from pubs and clubs to political parties would be banned, to curb problem gambling in the state.
Only a few of the roughly 100 questions submitted were selected for the premier to answer. He was not asked if he would ensure that faith-based schools would be able to preference the hiring of staff of the same belief—a conspicuous omission given the Australian Law Reform Commission’s current inquiry into faith-based education.
The ALRC is proposing religious education reforms that would require faith-based schools to employ teachers who may not share or support the school’s religious beliefs.
Former executive director of Samaritan’s Purse, Leigh Brown, was in the audience. and told The Catholic Weekly he would be disappointed if schools were forced to accept teachers of any faith or none rather than be able to preference staff belonging to the same faith.
“I was disappointed it wasn’t dealt with, I know it was asked by a number of people,” Mr Brown said.
Members of the NSW Religious Communities Advisory Council acted as moderators on the night; Surinder Jain, national vice president at the Hindu Council of Australia Surinder Jain, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s director of public affairs and engagement Monica Doumit, Australian National Imams Council’s Bilal Rauf.
Chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Darren Bark, was master of ceremonies for the event.