Whatever the outcome in this election, the religious freedom issue is not going away

In the leadup to the federal election, both political parties are short on detail about religious freedom

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Catholic students participate in Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 19 February. Christian advocates are increasingly concerned at government overreach into core religious activities and teachings. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Religious discrimination is proving to be the dead issue that won’t stay buried, with both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese facing renewed queries about their intentions on the issue from journalists, and religious and LGBT interest groups.

Labor has flagged its intention to proceed with anti-discrimination legislation since before the election was called, with Senator Deborah O’Neill telling a FamilyVoice Australia webinar on 28 March that an Albanese Government would bring legislation before Parliament in its first term.

Yet on 9 May, at a doorstop at St Mary’s Cathedral College, Mr Albanese declined to commit to a definite timeline for new religious discrimination laws.

Mixed signals?

Labor’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek MP, said Labor would offer protection against religious discrimination but added that they have “been consistently clear that we don‘t want to see any [LGBT] child discriminated against”.

In response to queries from the Archdiocese of Sydney, a Labor campaign spokesperson “committed to ensuring that religious schools can continue to teach in accordance with their doctrine”.

“Any consequential legislative amendments that may be required to ensure this occurs are matters that we would carefully consider, in consultation with stakeholders, and with input from the Australian Law Reform Commission, in the drafting of legislation,” the individual said.

Issue haunts PM

The Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill was defeated after five Coalition MPs crossed the floor to vote with Labor in support of a crossbench amendment to repeal s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, an exemption for religious schools to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.

The defeat continues to haunt Mr Morrison, who was pressed by journalists after saying on 8 May that he would introduce new religious discrimination legislation and amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act “sequentially” if re-elected, but refused to specify how or when.

Liberal dissenters, aware the electorate may turn on the Coalition, have not shifted their position. In recent days Senator Andrew Bragg and Wentworth MP Dave Sharma have both said the issues cannot be separated.

Christians remain concerned

“All the issues on students and teachers need to be dealt with at the same time as the religious discrimination bill,” Senator Bragg told The Sydney Morning Herald.

The religious discrimination issue remains active among faith groups concerned about whether they will be able to teach traditional doctrine into the future without falling afoul of the law.

Christian legal think-tank Freedom for Faith held its Freedom22 Conference, “Religious Freedom in Crisis”, at Parramatta’s Park Royal on 3 May. The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney and chair of Freedom for Faith, Michael Stead, told the conference that “crisis is the right word for where we are right now”.

‘A big shift has occurred’

“I’m not normally given to this kind of alarmist language, but something profound has happened in our society, not just in our lifetimes, or in the last five or 10 years, or even in the passage of time since the Ruddock Review – there has been a massive shift,” he said.

“There’s been a massive increase in laws forcing religious institutions to act against their fundamental beliefs,” Bishop Stead added, naming euthanasia as one issue of looming concern for Church-run aged care in NSW.

He also said he was alarmed at “government overreach into what I would describe as core religious activities” taking place within churches, synagogues and mosques.

Concern at government overreach

“I never would have imagined five years ago what has happened in Victoria in recent years, where merely praying with someone that God would help them not to act on their sexual desires, could be a criminal offence.”

Stephen McAlpine, an evangelical Pastor and author of 2021 Christian Book of the Year, Being the Bad Guys, drew an analogy between the state of religious freedom and Mike Tyson’s famous comment, “everybody’s got a plan until they get a punch in the mouth,” he said. “It feels in a sense that’s the tone of the current debate around religious freedom. It feels more ‘boxing ring’ than ‘academy’.”

“You can say something wrong that can get you cancelled quickly, and I think many Christians felt after the last Federal Election we had dodged a bullet when it came to dealing with the issues around faith and we would sort them out.

‘We dodged a boomerang’

“But we haven’t dodged a bullet. We’ve dodged a boomerang.” Christian Schools Australia and the National Catholic Education Commission both continue to push the majority parties to protect the integrity of faith-based education.

“We can work with the approach that either major party has proposed. But we fear this issue remaining unresolved for another election cycle,” NCEC Executive Director Jacinta Collins said.

Christian Schools Australia released its Plan for Freedom and Equality on 10 May, with Director of Public Policy Mark Spencer saying the fear of expulsion of LGBT students was “totally unfounded” but “is sincerely felt and must be addressed”.

‘Dissenters need to support us or provide a credible alternative’

“Activists who claimed a ‘win’ when the Bill did not proceed in February, and those MPs who claimed to be protecting LGBT students, are the only barrier to a solution being implemented,” Mr Spencer said in the statement.

Christian Schools Australia proposes to pass the original Religious Discrimination Bill 2022, re-commence the Australian Law Reform Commission review into exemptions within three months, and pass amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act as recommended by the review.

MPs who voted to repeal s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act ”need to support our plan or provide their alternative plan” Mr Spencer said.

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