Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is overdue.
Conceived eight months ago, when the Bill was announced as part of the Government’s response to the Religious Freedom Review in December 2018 Attorney-General Christian Porter stated that “we are well-advanced on the drafting and… we would have [it] out early [this] year, so that people can see it”.[i]
Yet in late August 2019 this legislation remains nowhere to be seen – at least not in public, and definitely not by the LGBTI community (although given Morrison’s consultation with 21 religious leaders,[ii] of various faiths, in early August it is a safe bet they have been advised of its key features).
The longer the gestational period for the Religious Discrimination Bill is, and the more details that are kept hidden from the people who it could adversely affect – LGBTI Australians, women, single parents, de factos and divorced people – the greater the levels of collective anxiety about what it may contain.
So, what can we expect when Morrison and Porter are ‘expecting’?
If we are to take the Attorney-General at his word, we have nothing to fear from this reform. From the time it was first announced, Porter has consistently stated that it would be relatively straight-forward:
The architecture for discrimination legislation in Australia is well-known, it’s not overly complicated. An attribute is defined – such as age or race or sex or disability or, in this case, the adherence to a religion or the right to not adhere to a religion – and then certain prohibitions are placed on people in terms of their treatment of other Australians based on that attribute. So you are protected from discrimination because of that attribute and then there are certain exemptions drafted as is appropriate. I don’t think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture.[iii]
He has made similarly reassuring comments since the 18 May election:
“Porter said the government was doing ‘precisely what we said we would do’ at the election. He believed a ‘classical formulation of rights’ that protected people from the behaviour of other people through the architecture of anti-discrimination bills was superior to a religious freedom bill.”[iv]
And just today: “Mr Porter told The Australian that the final bill would deliver a religious discrimination act that ‘mirrors other anti-discrimination acts such as those already covering race, sex and aged discrimination’”.[v]
Based on these comments, the Morrison Government should shortly give birth[vi] to a Religious Discrimination Bill that, similar to something like the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), protects people against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, and nothing else.
Such a narrow law would in fact be a welcome development, especially because it would protect religious minorities against discrimination – something that is long overdue in multicultural Australia.
But it would not be welcomed by everyone, especially not religious fundamentalists like the Australian Christian Lobby, and parts of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, who have been relentlessly campaigning for a more expansive Religious Freedom Bill, one that would provide people of faith with the ability to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex and relationship status (among other attributes).
And that’s why the delay in releasing the Bill is so concerning. Because preparing a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill is a relatively straight-forward task, and one that should have been completed months ago.
Whereas cooking up a Religious Freedom Bill is a much more complicated process, as more and more potential ‘nasties’ are added into the mix. Which is one possible reading of media reports from early July suggesting the legislation has ‘already had more than 50 drafts.’[vii]
So, if the Morrison Government is indeed preparing to introduce a Religious Freedom Bill, what exactly should LGBTI Australians be afraid of?
My number one worry is that the legislation will undermine our existing framework of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections.
Now, I am the first to admit that these laws are deeply flawed[viii] (in most jurisdictions other than Tasmania anyway) and in need of significant reform, including to remove the overly-generous religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people.
The problem is that the Religious Discrimination Bill could make things much, much worse.
For example, the Government could create a positive right for religious individuals and organisations to ‘manifest’ their religious belief, even where it has a negative impact on the rights of others, such as the right to be protected against discrimination.
They could explicitly provide that the Religious Discrimination Bill overrides the laws of state and territories that establish better protections for LGBTI people. Even if they don’t include a ‘cover the field’ type provision, depending on how they legislate any inconsistency between Commonwealth and State and Territory laws could invalidate the latter.
To take a specific example, the Religious Discrimination Bill could override the anti-discrimination laws in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory which currently protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. And it could preclude other jurisdictions, like NSW and Victoria, from adopting the same approaches in the future.
Another way in which the Religious Discrimination Bill could undermine anti-discrimination protections for other groups, is through the inclusion of new ‘objectives clauses’ in all Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, as recommended by the Religious Freedom Review.[ix]
Recommendation 3: Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should consider the use of objects, purposes or other interpretive clauses in anti-discrimination legislation to reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights, including freedom of religion.
The risk lies in how this recommendation is implemented. It is possible that the Government does what then-Attorney-General George Brandis tried to do during the marriage legislation debate in November 2017, and only incorporate Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
Significantly, Brandis did so while excluding the equally-important Article 18(3):
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.[x]
If the Government adopts this approach, prioritising the objective of religious freedom over other human rights, we can be in no doubt the (misnamed) Human Rights Law Alliance will file as many legal ccomplaints at it takes to have courts reinterpret LGBTI anti-discrimination laws as narrowly as possible.
Just this week we also discovered that the Religious Discrimination Bill could provide anti-discrimination ‘protection’ not just to individuals, but also to religious organisations[xi] – something that is unprecedented in Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.
As Anna Brown from Equality Australia stated:
It would be extremely unorthodox for the religious discrimination bill to include provisions to protect organisations or religious institutions given the historical focus of discrimination law in protecting the rights and dignity of individuals.
Another risk from the Commonwealth creating positive rights for people to ‘manifest’ their religious belief is that it could undermine LGBTI anti-vilification laws in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.[xii]
Currently, none of those jurisdictions include ‘religious discussion’ as a defence to their vilification provisions (although the Hodgman Liberal Government in Tasmania tried to introduce this defence in the last term of parliament, but was defeated in their upper house).
The Religious Discrimination Bill could instead make it easier for people in those jurisdictions to vilify LGBTI people as long as they could say this vilification was motivated by their religious beliefs.
The second major fear is that we could end up with a system where religious belief attracts more rights than other protected attributes, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status/sex characteristics.
For example, there is a possibility (albeit small) that the Religious Discrimination Bill will create anti-vilification protections for religious belief.
Which, in principle, is perfectly reasonable – because nobody deserves to be vilified on the basis of who they are (although religious vilification laws would need to be carefully crafted so as not to create de facto blasphemy laws).
The problem arises because it would be only the second attribute to attract protection against vilification under Commonwealth law – the other being racial vilification prohibited under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
None of sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status attract equivalent protections. No matter how plaintively religious fundamentalists are performing their persecution at the moment (especially regarding the Folau case), it is impossible to argue that vilification against people because of their religious belief is any more common, or harmful, than homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic vilification.
There is another situation, however, where it is already certain that religious Australians will end up with greater human rights representation than LGBTI people – because the Morrison Government has committed to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission.
In principle, a Religious Discrimination Commissioner (along the lines of the existing Race, Sex, Age and Disability Commissioners) makes sense – although its focus should be on removing discrimination against people on the basis of religion, not prosecuting the case for ever-greater ‘religious freedoms’.
In practice, though, even the Government’s own Religious Freedom Review, chaired by the hand-picked former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, found that a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Commissioner was unnecessary:
Recommendation 19: The Australian Human Rights Commission should take a leading role in the protection of freedom of religion, including through enhancing engagement, understanding and dialogue. This should occur within the existing commissioner model and not necessarily through the creation of a new position [emphasis added].
Appointing a Religious Freedom Commissioner would also create a stark contrast with LGBTI Australians, who, despite being protected against discrimination following the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, still do not have a human rights commissioner of our own.[xiii]
Therefore, if either or both religious anti-vilification laws and a Religious Freedom Commissioner are introduced, LGBTI Australians will quite rightly be left wondering why some Australians are more equal than others.
My third major worry concerns a litany of other new special rights that could be created for religious individuals and organisations, across a range of other laws.
We have already seen a preview of this, with the Government’s legislative agenda, published on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,[xiv] suggesting they will introduce not just a Religious Discrimination Bill, but also a Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill and a Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill.
The latter two bills in particular will ‘amend existing Commonwealth legislation relating to freedom of religion, including amendments to marriage law, [and] charities law.’
The reference to marriage law may be linked to Recommendation 12 of the Religious Freedom Review, which stated:
The Commonwealth should progress legislative amendments to make it clear that religious schools are not required to make available their facilities, or to provide goods or services, for any marriage, provided that the refusal:
(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or
(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.
This is wrong in practice – if a religious school is offering its facilities, goods or services to the public (usually to make a profit), there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it should be able to reject couples simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.
But it is even worse in principle. As a result of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, Australia already has one of the worst same-sex marriage laws in the world.[xv] That legislation allowed existing civil celebrants to register in order to be able to refuse to officiate at ceremonies for LGBTI couples based on nothing more than their personal prejudice.
The 2017 marriage amendments also explicitly incorporated religious exceptions into the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) for the first time, granting religious organisations the ability to refuse to provide wedding-related services (even where those services were offered to the public on a commercial basis).
We should be aiming to purge these discriminatory provisions from the Marriage Act, not add to them with even more religious exceptions, this time to further entrench the legal privileges enjoyed by religious schools.
The amendment to charities law is likely to relate to implementation of the following recommendation of the Religious Freedom Review:
Recommendation 4: The Commonwealth should amend section 11 of the Charities Act 2013 to clarify that advocacy of a ‘traditional’ view of marriage would not, of itself, amount to a ‘disqualifying purpose’.
This is despite the fact that, during the 2017 marriage amendments, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission itself advised the Senate that such amendments were unnecessary.
Given same-sex marriage has now been legal for more than 18 months, there have also been no real-world examples of when this protection was actually required (if there had been, nobody would have been able to miss the squeals from the Australian Christian Lobby).
Even worse, the charities amendment could go further and protect other specific ‘religious beliefs’, including those proposed by then-Treasurer Morrison in his unsuccessful amendment to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2019,[xvi] such as:
‘the family structure of a man and a woman united in marriage with their children is a fundamental building block of human society, and this family structure has significant advantages for the nurture and raising of children…
‘the gender difference and complementarity of men and women is an inherent and fundamental feature of human society and is reflected in the gender difference and complementarity of a man and a woman united in marriage… [and]
‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth.’
It goes without saying that these offensive provisions should be kept out of the Charities Act 2013, or from any Australian law for that matter.
There are a range of other possible amendments that would increase, rather than reduce, discrimination in Australian society.
This includes changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 to specifically provide that employment Codes of Conduct cannot restrict the expression of religious views in the workplace no matter how offensive they may be to their colleagues or clients.
It could also include allowing parents or guardians to withdraw their children from any school class they morally disagree with, along the lines of this provision from Liberal Senator James Paterson’s failed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017:[xvii]
if a person genuinely believes that material taught by the educational institution in a class is not consistent with the relevant marriage belief or relevant belief held by the person, the person may request the principal of the educational institution to… release the student from attendance of that class and any subsequent class.
Obviously, with a definition that broad, we could see parents withdrawing their children from a wide range of classes, anything from health and physical education, to science (where evolution may be taught) or even history.
There are too many other possible negative amendments to even try to mention here. The list is as long as the imagined persecution of religious fundamentalists is wide.
It should be acknowledged that some of these amendments are more likely to be introduced, and passed, than others. I would sincerely hope that the Government simply ignores the more extreme calls for new special rights to discriminate.
But this is hope rather than expectation because, despite committing to let us see their Religious Discrimination Bill early this year, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have yet to be formally consulted on its contents.
In this vacuum, it is only natural for all groups who stand to lose from the Religious Discrimination Bill – not just LGBTI people, but women, single parents, de factos and divorced people too – to be fearful about what it may contain.
The only way for the Morrison Government to assuage these fears is to ensure that it produces a Religious Discrimination Bill, along the lines of the Age Discrimination Act, rather than a Religious Freedom Bill. And then to ensure that its legislation meets community expectations by engaging in genuine consultation with all sections of society, including LGBTI Australians.
I guess we’ll find out which option they’ve chosen in the days and weeks ahead.
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[ii] Scott Morrison meets with faith leaders on religious freedom bill but not LGBTQI advocates, Star Observer, 7 August 2019.
[iv] Religious discrimination bill will safeguard people of faith, says attorney-general, Guardian Australia, 8 July 2019.
[v] Catholics, Scott Morrison to clash on religious freedom, The Australian, 20 August 2019.
[vi] And I promise that’s the end of my tortured metaphor…
[vii] ‘A pox on both their houses’: Senator warns of voter backlash if religious freedoms not protected, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2019.
[x] Such as the right to be protected against discrimination, as found in Article 26 of the ICCPR:
All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
[xi] Coalition pressured to include protections for religious institutions in discrimination bill, Guardian Australia, 15 August 2019.
[xii] NSW is the only other jurisdiction that includes protections against LGT vilification, although it does allow religious discussion as a defence. See for example section 38S(2)(c) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977:
a public act, done reasonably and in good faith, for academic, artistic, scientific, research or religious discussion or instruction purposes or for other purposes in the public interest, including discussion or debate about and expositions of any act or matter [emphasis added].