Attorney General Christian Porter plans to put a package of ‘religious discrimination’ bills to the parliament by the end of the year. If passed, these laws will weaken protections for women, LGBTIQ people and others.
After the victory for marriage equality in 2017, the tops of the religious institutions began a campaign for a ‘religious discrimination’ law. They suggested that marriage equality could threaten their right to religious freedom. They also claim there is no law against religious discrimination, but this isn’t true.
What they actually want is the freedom to discriminate against anyone who doesn’t conform to their view of society. Malcolm Turnbull’s government responded to their demands with a review of the issue, headed by the notorious right-winger Phillip Ruddock.
In spite of his conservative credentials, Ruddock actually found that religious freedom was not in ‘imminent peril’. He was unable to deliver the kind of recommendations sought by the religious political lobby because their so-called fears don’t even remotely correspond with reality.
There are already many layers of protection for religious rights and freedoms in Australia. Alongside other protections from discrimination, Section 116 of the constitution prevents the state from “prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”.
Various state-based anti-discrimination laws also exist. Federal workplace laws work with state laws to prohibit religious discrimination as well. While not perfect, there are many checks against discrimination already in place.
Moreover, there are also many special exemptions from discrimination laws for religious institutions. Both the Sex Discrimination Act and the Age Discrimination Act contain special exemptions, as does the act that introduced marriage equality.
Nevertheless, Christian Porter is determined to push ahead with his new bills anyway. He may receive support from Labor, but if they decide to oppose the laws, the right-wing senate crossbenchers will likely pass them as part of a deal.
One of Porter’s bills would create a specific Freedom of Religion Commissioner under the Australian Commission of Human Rights. This figure would enforce the planned Religious Freedom Act, and advocate on ‘religious freedom issues’. Ruddock’s review actually recommended against this.
Special privileges for religious belief or practice are contained in the main bill. For example, a ‘statement of religious belief’ would not constitute discrimination. Protections from discrimination in other laws will be nullified by this.
That means statements that offend, humiliate, insult or intimidate LGBTIQ people, women or people with disabilities would be allowed if someone says they are religious beliefs. It would also nullify section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act on religious grounds. This Act is something conservatives have been unsuccessfully campaigning to abolish for years.
Conscientious objection provisions for healthcare practitioners are also written into the bill. This would further the anti-abortion agenda, transphobic activity and obstruction of euthanasia. Doctors may even refuse to give referrals to others who will perform procedures, making it harder to access these health services, even where the doctors take public money.
Profit is still most sacred in Porter’s bill though. Businesses who turn over more than $50 million per year will be able to impose conditions around religious expression on employees, even outside work hours. They only need to prove it would cause the company ‘unjustified financial hardship’.
In the high-profile case of sacked sportsman Israel Folau, Rugby Australia would likely argue that his tweet about gays going to hell would result in the loss of sponsorship and profits.
This bill is not about protecting ordinary people from discrimination. The forces behind it are the most notorious peddlers of discrimination, division and hate in this country.
One of the reasons the Liberal Party supports the bill is that, with a diminishing and ageing membership, they are desperately seeking to be propped up by religious institutions. They hope this favour will lead to donations and extra members.
Socialists going back to the 19th century have stood for the right of ordinary people to practice their religion free from state interference or persecution. What socialists oppose is religious institutions hiding behind false arguments to wield their power via discriminatory laws dressed up as religious freedom.
If allowed to pass, these bills will be used to divide and rule ordinary people. They should be opposed in their entirety. Instead we need to struggle together for a genuinely free society that uses the wealth we create to provide everyone with a dignified life.
By Kirk Leonard