Religious Discrimination Bill goes down in flames

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, February 10, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Years of drafting, hundreds of hours of consultation, an expert review and two Parliamentary inquiries may come to nothing after the Coalition Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill went down in flames this week.

The bill went to a vote during an all-night sitting of the House of Representatives on Wednesday night and passed, after a flurry of last-minute amendments from Labor and the crossbench.

The only successful amendment was the removal of Section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, which gave religious schools the right to discriminate on sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status in accordance with the tenets of its faith.

It was proposed in response to weeks of claims that Christian schools will use religious freedom laws to discriminate against LGBT students; proposals by the Government to address this issue were not considered comprehensive enough by advocates and progressive MPs.

“Prayers for our parliamentarians as they debate the Religious Discrimination Bill this afternoon, especially for efforts to find common ground.” – Archbishop Peter Comensoli

Rebekha Sharkie, a Centre Alliance MP from South Australia, proposed the total removal of section 38(3). She was backed by Labor and five Coalition MPs who crossed the floor: Trent Zimmerman, Katie Allen, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma and Bridget Archer.

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, reportedly used every possible means to cajole the so-called “moderate liberals” into maintaining party discipline – including offering to give more powers to a proposed federal integrity commission – without success.

“I’m going to lead, and I’m asking you once again to follow me to an election victory,” Morrison said.

The Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, then claimed to have received advice from the Australian Government Solicitor that the removal of section 38(3) may have “unintended consequences”.

She did not release the advice, leading Sharkie to call on the Morrison Government to “prosecute its argument in the Senate to overturn the amendment” and table the opinion of the Australian Government Solicitor for public scrutiny.

Bill not voted on in Senate

The bill accordingly did not proceed to a Senate vote. The Senate will not sit again until the Budget is handed down on March 29, meaning the bill will either wait until then or be put on the backburner indefinitely.

The Attorney-General is also considering yet another Senate Inquiry on the bill, despite two Parliamentary inquiries recommending the bill be passed with only minor amendments.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton told the ABC on Friday morning that the Prime Minister was “misled” by the Coalition MPs who crossed the floor.

“There are undertakings that were given. The undertaking wasn’t honoured … The government doesn’t go into a vote like that unless assurances have been given,” Dutton said.

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference representative on the issue, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli, appealed on Twitter for prayers on Wednesday.

“Prayers for our parliamentarians as they debate the Religious Discrimination Bill this afternoon, especially for efforts to find common ground. Praying for a good and equitable law that is considerate of all Australians,” Archbishop Comensoli said.

The National Catholic Education Commission has also supported the bill and has repeatedly stressed that Catholic schools do not expel students based on their sexuality or gender identification.

Prior to the parliamentary fracas, on Wednesday, National Catholic Education Director Jacinta Collins said in a statement that “we support further work occurring with the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure an appropriate balance of protections, and at the same time, welcome the acknowledgment that faith-based schools should maintain their capacity to operate within their religious ethos”.

Christian groups call for bill to be withdrawn

The Anglican Church’s Religious Freedom Reference Group leader, Bishop Michael Stead, called for the impasse to be resolved, and decried the general quality and tone of the debate over the bill.

“Many MPs seem to have given scant regard to how to protect those of religious faith and the positive contribution of individuals, churches and religious organisations to the community,” Stead said.

“Instead, the central intent of the bill has been overshadowed and derailed by the discussion of the exemptions section of s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act.”

The National Civil Council, Australian Christian Lobby and other Christian groups have largely withdrawn their support for the bill since the amendments were passed.

“It is better to keep the exemptions in the SDA and not have a Religious Discrimination Act … This represents a crushing defeat of the Morrison government’s position and threatens to scuttle the passage of religious freedom protections entirely,” National Civil Council President Pat Byrne said.

Wendy Francis, National Director Politics at the Australian Christian Lobby, said that the amendments were “a price too high to pay” and that “the Government should immediately withdraw the bills”.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese blamed the chaos this week on the “flawed legislation offered by the Morrison-Joyce Government [which] was produced at the last minute”, saying the Prime Minister “walked away from his commitment to extend anti-discrimination laws by not debating the legislation in the Senate”.

Albanese also committed to religious freedom legislation of his own, were he to win government, that would allow schools to preserve their religious ethos while protecting “all students from discrimination on any grounds”.

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