Coronavirus and the Religious Discrimination Bill

2020 is still less than ten weeks old. A lot has already happened in that time.

Obviously, the year started with the climate change-driven bushfires that devastated large swathes of South-Eastern Australia.

Around the same time, the first reports were emerging about a respiratory illness, caused by a novel coronavirus and which is now called COVID-19, wreaking havoc in Wuhan, China.

On a personal level, both at work and outside, most of my time has been spent trying to stop the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, which will inflict its own serious harm on the Australian community.

At first glance, there may not appear to be much to connect these three developments. But dig a little deeper and there is a clear interaction between the Religious Discrimination Bill and the first two crises, at least in terms of how Australia responds to them.

For example, in relation to the bushfires in January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison encouraged Australians to give freely to charities, and then specifically named three: the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul.

While the Red Cross is secular in ethos, the ‘Salvos’ and St Vincent de Paul are faith-based charities, which means that under clause 11 of the Religious Discrimination Bill they would legally be able to:

  • discriminate in terms of who they provide assistance to, including by ‘preferencing’ people who are Christian and consequently neglecting people who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or agnostic, and
  • discriminate in terms of who they employ, including by not hiring the most qualified person for the job, but instead the most religious.

To date, St Vincent de Paul has largely rejected these new special privileges, but as far as I understand, the Salvation Army has not (at least not Australia-wide). I wonder how many people would give so generously in the future if they were aware their money is funding religious discrimination and not emergency relief?

Nevertheless, it is the second major crisis – the coronavirus – and the Religious Discrimination Bill that I want to primarily focus on today.

Once again, despite superficially seeming unrelated, the Government’s proposed legislation could have a major influence on how our country responds to this grave threat. Indeed, I would argue that COVID-19 provides (at least) five reasons why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be abandoned.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill allows hospitals to hire the most religious, not the most qualified

In the coming months, we are going to be relying on our health care system more than ever before. From GPs to pharmacists, health information lines to hospitals – both public and religious. All parts of the system must be high quality – and that means all must hire the best-qualified person for each and every position.

Unfortunately, the Religious Discrimination Bill subverts that entirely reasonable expectation. Under clauses 32(8) and (10), religious hospitals would be permitted to discriminate in employment on the ground of religious belief.

That means a religious hospital would be legally able to hire a doctor, or nurse, or pharmacist, or other essential employee, because of their religious beliefs and instead of a better-qualified alternative candidate.

Surely that must have an impact on the standard of care that patients will receive. Imagine the worry if one of your loved ones is taken to the emergency department of a faith-based hospital and you can’t be certain whether the health practitioner is there because of what they believe, not what they can do.

The fact that religious hospitals receive public funding to deliver these services makes this proposal even more sickening.

If the Australian Government wants us to have confidence in all parts of the health system as it responds to coronavirus, then it must abandon legislation that inevitably damages that confidence.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill allows aged care facilities to hire the most religious, not the most qualified

Another area that has an important role in dealing with COVID-19 is our aged care sector. This is because the death rates from coronavirus are much higher among people aged over 70, and especially 80, and where they have existing medical conditions – exactly the demographic profile of aged care facilities.

Because of these particular vulnerabilities, we will be relying on our aged care workers to limit the spread of infection and keep our elderly as safe as possible – as well as to respond appropriately where transmission does occur.

Unfortunately, the same provisions of the Religious Discrimination Bill named above – clauses 32(8) and (10) – also allow religious aged-care services to discriminate in employment of the ground of religious belief.

Once again, that means aged care services operated by faith-based organisations will be permitted to hire someone because of their religious beliefs rather than their qualifications. Once again, the services will be able to discriminate in this way even where they are government-funded.[i]

As someone with a grandmother who turned 99 last Wednesday, and who is in a nursing home, I would hate to think she is being cared for by someone who is there because of their views and not their vocational skills.

Older Australians must be looked after by the people most likely to keep them safe, irrespective of their religious beliefs. This is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic. The Religious Discrimination Bill directly contradicts this principle, and is another reason why it must be abandoned.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill will already make it more difficult for women, LGBTI people and other vulnerable groups to access essential health care. Coronavirus will exacerbate this problem

Of course, while COVID-19 will likely receive the lion’s share of health care system resources in the weeks and months ahead, people will continue to get sick in other ways, and to rely on health practitioners to keep them well.

Unfortunately, as has been highlighted previously,[ii] clauses 8(6) and (7) of the Religious Discrimination Bill would make it easier for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychologists and midwives to refuse to participate in particular health services.

As Attorney-General Christian Porter has himself conceded, these provisions would allow doctors and pharmacists to:

  • refuse to provide reproductive health services, even where this has a disproportionate impact on women
  • refuse to provide access to hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, even where this has a disproportionate impact on trans and gender diverse people, and
  • refuse to provide PEP and/or PrEP, even where this disproportionately exposes gay and bisexual men to the risk of HIV transmission.

Where patients are denied this essential health care, they are supposed to find another health practitioner who is willing and able to do so (although the refusing practitioner likely does not have any obligation to make a referral).

As has been pointed out, this may be practically difficult, both for time-critical services (such as PEP, or the ‘morning after’ pill), as well as for people in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia.

Well, the impact of the novel coronavirus could make this situation much worse. For example, say you are a trans youth living in a regional centre, and rely on a certain doctor and/or pharmacist to provide access to puberty blockers.

And then that doctor or pharmacist is required to self-isolate for a minimum of two weeks because of potential exposure to COVID-19. Note that this is already happening in Sydney and Melbourne, with individual health practitioners ordered to stay away from work at extremely short notice.

What exactly is the trans young person meant to do in these circumstances, especially where other doctors and pharmacists in town have the ‘right’ to turn them away?

With the impending massive strain of coronavirus on our health care system, all effort should be made to ensure it operates effectively and efficiently for all people who need health care – all types of health care. The Religious Discrimination instead erects barriers to some of the most vulnerable members of our community. It must be abandoned.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill will divide Australia at a time it needs unity

It is only early days in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on Australia, with the total number of people diagnosed remaining at fewer than 100 (at the time of writing).

However, the impact on our social cohesion is already quite large. This includes countless reported incidents of racism directed at Chinese-Australians, and Asian-Australians more generally.

And of course just this week we witnessed the run on the nation’s toilet paper supply – with panic buying leading to physical altercations in a number of supermarkets around the country.

As the situation worsens, and more and more people are infected, this pandemic will likely test the ties that bind us together, often in unexpected ways.

This is exactly the wrong time for our Government to introduce legislation that divides the community into ever-smaller groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

It is the wrong time to allow schools, and universities, and charities, and accommodation providers, and hospitals, and aged care services, and conference venues, and camp sites, to discriminate on the ground of religious belief in terms of who they offer services to, and/or employ.

It is the wrong time for our Government to pursue a Bill that encourages religious individuals to make degrading and demeaning ‘statements of belief’ against women, LGBTI people, people with disability, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and even people from minority faiths, in all areas of public life.[iii]

While I haven’t seen many examples yet, I’m sure there will soon be a deluge of extremists seeking to exploit coronavirus, blaming it on women exercising reproductive choice, gay men having sex, LGBTI people getting married – all with the possible tick of approval from the Religious Discrimination Bill.

If the Government wants to lead on COVID-19, and bring the community together to deal with a common threat, it must abandon legislation that makes nearly everybody an enemy of somebody else.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill is a distraction for a Government that should be focused on more important things

The fifth and final reason why the Government must abandon the Religious Discrimination Bill is arguably the most important – and that is because it is an unnecessary distraction from much more important issues that warrant their urgent attention.

Like responding to the immediate health challenges presented by coronavirus, particularly as the illness begins its inevitable spread across the community.

And dealing with the significant economic fallout, with Australia now facing our first economic recession in almost three decades.

There is an entire generation of people (including myself and my partner) who have grown up not knowing what a recession looks like, but it seems we are soon to find out. And it won’t be pretty.

Surely the Government should be focused on taking action to stop the economy grinding to a halt, and preventing rising unemployment in education, tourism, retail, construction and pretty much every other industry in the country.

Oh, and then there’s the equally urgent need to make structural changes to reduce our carbon emissions, to minimise the chances of the other disaster that heralded the start of 2020 (the bushfires) from happening again.

Instead, the Morrison Government is wasting its time on proposed legislation that almost nobody actually wants, except religious fundamentalists who demand it so they can use it as a weapon against non-believers.

In pushing forward with the Religious Discrimination Bill, the Government is wasting our time, too – because we must continue to expend our time, energy and resources to stop this abhorrent and appalling legislation.

If it sounds like I’m sick and tired, that’s only because I am. Sick and tired of having to defend my community against the constant attacks against it, from a Government that can’t find the time to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination, but has miraculously created the time to progress two exposure drafts (and counting) of this law.

And if it sounds like I’m anxious about coronavirus, well I am that too. If we’re being honest, most of us are right now. That anxiety might turn out to be unfounded. Or it could be an entirely rational response to what confronts us. It could even be we aren’t worried enough.

We don’t really know – only the weeks and months ahead will truly tell.

Here’s what we do know. As of this morning, a third Australian has tragically died from COVID-19, out of more than 3,500 deaths – and 105,000 cases – worldwide. Each of those numbers will continue to grow.

But there’s one death that would not be mourned – if the Morrison Government finally did the right thing and abandoned its Religious Discrimination Bill. That would be a mercy killing, and it would be met with relief from most members of the Australian community.

 

Coronavirus

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:

[i] I should highlight here that government-funded aged care facilities operated by religious bodies are already entitled to discriminate in employment in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, under section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). As I have argued previously this provision already jeopardises the standard of care provided to people accessing aged care services and it must be removed. See Submission to Royal Commission into Aged Care.

[ii] See The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must be Blocked.

[iii] Under clause 42 of the Bill, which effectively exempts ‘statements of belief’ from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, unless they meet the high bar of being malicious, harassing, threatening, seriously intimidating, vilifying (meaning inciting hatred or violence) or promoting the commission of a serious criminal offence.

Did You Know? The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act Doesn’t Protect Bisexuals Against Discrimination

The Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is on tonight, and I am looking forward to attending the festivities in Taylor Square.

 

Although it will likely be in less noteworthy company than last year when, through an unlikely combination of circumstances, I ended up watching most of the parade standing next to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

 

Always the activist, and never one to waste an opportunity, I did manage to ask her an LGBTI rights question during the event. The question I chose:

 

Are you aware that NSW is the only jurisdiction in Australia that does not protect bisexuals against discrimination?

 

The Premier answered that ‘no, she wasn’t aware of that’ (or words to that effect) before turning back to talk to her companions.

 

In her defence, she would not have been alone in not knowing about this bizarre, and unacceptable, loophole in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (although she definitely cannot claim ignorance now).

 

It is a gap that has existed from the time discrimination on the basis of homosexuality was prohibited in late 1982 (a full 18 months before male homosexuality was even decriminalised in this state).

 

And one that wasn’t fixed when a definition of ‘homosexual’ was inserted in section 4 of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1994: ‘homosexual means male or female homosexual’.

 

This is the definition that remains to this day. Which quite clearly excludes people whose sexual orientation is towards people of the same sex and people of different sexes. [Interestingly, it also prevents heterosexual people from enjoying protection under the Act].

 

As I stated in my question to Ms Berejiklian, NSW is alone in having such a narrow definition.

 

The Commonwealth prohibits discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’ in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, with a definition that clearly covers lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual people.

 

Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania all also prohibit discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’, while Queensland the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory cover ‘sexuality’ [for more, see A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws].

 

What does NSW’s exclusion of bisexuals mean in a practical sense?

 

Well, on the positive side, because bisexuals are still protected under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, discrimination against them in NSW remains prohibited in most (although not all) circumstances.

 

However, there are limits to this coverage – limits that do not apply to lesbians and gay men.

 

For example, section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act provides that protections against discrimination in employment under that Act ‘do not apply in relation to employment by an instrumentality of a State.’

 

Instrumentalities are independent government agencies or corporations. In effect, bisexual employees of independent NSW Government agencies are not protected against discrimination during their employment.[i] Ironically, this means bisexual employees of Anti-Discrimination NSW itself are potentially not protected.

 

Another practical effect of the exclusion of bisexuals from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is that they are not covered by civil prohibitions on vilification, unlike their gay and lesbian counterparts.

 

For example, section 49ZT of the Act defines homosexual vilification as ‘to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person of group of persons on the ground of the homosexuality of the person of members of the group.’

 

Because there is also no prohibition against anti-LGBTI vilification at Commonwealth level, this means bisexual people cannot make a civil complaint of vilification in any circumstance.

 

Confusingly, bisexual people are protected by the 2018 amendments to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), with section 93Z(1)(c) criminalising:

‘a public act [that] intentionally or recklessly threatens or incites violence towards another person or a group of persons on [the ground of] the sexual orientation of the other person or one or more of the members of the group.’

 

Sexual orientation is then broadly defined in section 93Z(5) as:

‘a person’s sexual orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex, or

(b) persons of a different sex, or

(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.’

 

Which is obviously welcome, but invites the logical question that, if the NSW Government was willing to include ‘sexual orientation’ in the Crimes Act, why hasn’t it also updated the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act along the same, inclusive, lines?

 

The third practical effect of the general exclusion of bisexuals from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is that it limits their options in terms of where to lodge complaints and/or file lawsuits.

 

Whereas lesbians and gay men discriminated against in NSW have the ability to complain to either Anti-Discrimination NSW or the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) – and therefore of pursuing legal action in either the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) or multiple courts – bisexuals can only complain to the AHRC and can only file in court.

 

This has implications in terms of the timelines for lodging complaints, the allocation of costs and the potential award of damages.

 

Each of these practical effects should be sufficient in and of itself to convince the NSW Government to update the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and replace ‘homosexuality’ with ‘sexual orientation’.

 

But, as with most anti-discrimination laws, the symbolic effect is just as important. After all, what does it say about the place of bisexuals in our own community, and society more widely, that they continue to be excluded from the primary legislation in this state which is designed to ensure all people are treated equally?

 

Unfortunately, it is not just bisexuals who are excluded in this way either.

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 also excludes non-binary people, because the definition of transgender in section 38A only covers someone who ‘identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex’.

 

Similarly, the Act also fails to provide discrimination protections to intersex people, because it does not include a protected attribute of either ‘sex characteristics’ (the terminology preferred by Intersex Human Rights Australia) or ‘intersex status’ (the protected attribute in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

 

Although, unlike for bisexuality, NSW is far from alone in these deficiencies:

  • NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory all fail to protect non-binary people, and
  • Those same jurisdictions (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, WA and the NT) also exclude intersex people from their discrimination frameworks.

 

There is a long, long way to go before Australian anti-discrimination laws adequately and appropriately protect LGBTI Australians against discrimination.

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 arguably has the longest journey ahead.[ii] Let’s hope Premier Berejiklian hears that message loud and clear at tonight’s Mardi Gras – and every parade until this exclusionary and out-dated law is fixed.

 

Bi Pride

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

 

Footnotes:

[i] To complicate matters, bisexual employees of NSW Government agencies are protected against unlawful termination, because section 772 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) applies. However, the adverse action protections in section 351 of that Act (which prohibit mistreatment during employment) don’t apply because they must also be prohibited by an equivalent Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law – which is not the case here.

[ii] For more problems see: What’s Wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

Don’t Rain on Our Parade

It’s reached that point in late February where, every day at 4:20pm, I visit the Bureau of Meteorology website to check the forecast for Saturday night’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

But, irrespective of whether the BoM says it will rain, hail, (smoke) or shine, there’s a much larger cloud hanging over Australia’s LGBTI community: the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

This legislation has the potential to adversely affect nearly every aspect of our existence.

 

From health-care, where it will allow doctors and pharmacists to deny hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, to trans and gender diverse people. And to refuse to provide access to PEP, and PrEP, exposing gay and bisexual men to greater risk of HIV transmission.

 

To the workplace, where employers and colleagues will be able to make comments that offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule us, as long as those statements are based on religious belief.

 

A manager could tell a staff member that gay sex is sinful, and same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered.

 

An interviewer may inform a trans applicant that gender is binary, and therefore their gender identity is not real.

 

A colleague could respond to a lesbian co-worker showing pictures of her family in the lunch-room that she has deliberately denied her children of a father, and will be condemned by god for her ‘lifestyle’ choices.

 

These are all entirely plausible scenarios. And all would be legally permitted under the Religious Discrimination Bill, because statements of belief are effectively exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

Indeed, statements of belief would be protected across all areas of public life, not just employment.

 

If this legislation passes, international tourists visiting Sydney this time next year could be subjected to degrading and demeaning comments anywhere and everywhere, at the airport, in the taxi or uber, on buses, trains and ferries, at the hotel or B&B, at tourist attractions, in cafes and restaurants, at shops and on the streets.

 

That sounds more like hate-song than ‘matesong’.

 

Except, once the party is over tourists will be able to leave these homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic comments behind, while LGBTI Australians will be stuck with them, like unshakeable glitter, invading every nook and cranny for years to come.

 

As a certain bank tried to remind us last week – and was then itself reminded by the community – ‘words do hurt’. It is unacceptable that our own Government is so focussed on ensuring we are all exposed to more hurtful words in our lives.

 

The Bill also further entrenches the special privileges granted to religious schools and other faith-based organisations to discriminate against teachers, other employees, students and, in some cases, people accessing their services, on the grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. Even where these services are being delivered using public funding.

 

It doesn’t explicitly grant new powers to religious schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. But then it doesn’t need to, either – because those powers already exist under the Sex Discrimination Act and, despite promising to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018, the Morrison Government has so far failed to shield some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

The theme for this year’s Mardi Gras is ‘What Matters’. In pushing ahead with the Religious Discrimination Bill, despite criticism from LGBTI organisations and a wide range of other civil society bodies, while failing to protect students in religious schools, it is clear the right to be a bigot matters much more to them than the safety of LGBT kids.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the current debate is that, from an LGBTI advocate’s perspective, it is a purely reactive one – defending existing rights under what are already-flawed anti-discrimination laws, rather than trying to make those laws better (for example, including bisexual, non-binary and intersex people in NSW’s out-dated Anti-Discrimination Act).

 

It takes attention away from other urgent law and policy reform, too.

 

We shouldn’t forget that this Saturday’s march takes place in a state where trans people still need to have surgery – which is both expensive, and for some people, unwanted – before being able to update their identity documentation.

 

And in a country where children born with variations in sex characteristics continue to suffer massive human rights violations, including coercive, intrusive and irreversible surgery and other medical treatments.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will take LGBTI rights in Australia backwards, when there is still so much progress left to be made, on these and many other issues.

 

It’s time the Morrison Government abandoned this legislative attack on our community, and instead worked with us to achieve positive change – maybe then we can finally celebrate under clear skies.

 

Mardi Gras flag

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

A Potential Warning to LGBTI Tourists to Australia

Today is one of my favourite days of the LGBTI calendar: Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Fair Day. Tens of thousands of people will gather in Victoria Park in a beautiful celebration of our community.

 

That includes visitors from interstate and from overseas, especially from the Asia-Pacific region, whose numbers will swell over the next fortnight in the lead-up to the Mardi Gras Parade and Party, to be held on Saturday 29 February.

 

It creates a real buzz around the city. I can only imagine how much louder Sydney will hum in 2023 as we host World Pride, the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to do so.

 

However, there is a looming threat to LGBTI tourism to Australia, one that has the potential to dampen our celebrations more than even literal rain on our parade: the Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

If passed, this legislation could have a negative impact on nearly every aspect of the visitor experience. So much so, it is easy to envisage the following warnings being handed out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex tourists to Australia in the future:

 

  1. Don’t get sick

 

Not only because our health care system can be expensive for people who are not citizens or permanent residents. But also because the Religious Discrimination Act allows doctors, pharmacists and some other health practitioners to refuse to provide health services, even where this has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups. For example, doctors and pharmacists can:

  • refuse to provide hormone treatments, even where this adversely affects trans and gender diverse people[i]
  • refuse to provide PEP/PrEP, even where this has a detrimental impact on gay and bisexual men (and others at increased risk of HIV transmission), and
  • refuse to provide reproductive health services (such as the morning after pill), irrespective of the effect on people with uteruses.

 

If possible, make sure you bring all of your medications with you, and be careful not to lose them during your stay.

 

  1. Be prepared to ‘shop around’ for doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners

 

If you do get sick, or lose your medication, while in Australia, you should be prepared for the possibility any individual doctor or pharmacist may refuse to provide a specific health service or treatment. You may need to see several of each in order to obtain access to the medications you need. Unfortunately, it is also likely you will be charged for appointments even where the health practitioner refuses to provide a service.

 

Importantly, whether a doctor or pharmacist will refuse to provide a specific health service or treatment may not be apparent before you see them. Individual doctors or pharmacists at public hospitals are also entitled to refuse service: if this happens, try asking for a new practitioner until you receive treatment.

 

  1. Be prepared for doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners to express abhorrent views about you, to you

 

Even if a doctor, pharmacist or other health practitioner provides you with the health service or treatment that you need, they are also free to express offensive, humiliating, ‘moderately’ intimidating, insulting or ridiculing views about your sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics while doing so. For example, they may be able to:

  • tell trans and gender diverse people that gender is binary and that their gender identity is an abomination[ii]
  • tell lesbian, gay and bisexual people that same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered and sinful, and
  • tell intersex people that sex should be male or female and that their sex characteristics are a mistake that must be corrected.

 

Doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners will be able to express these abhorrent views to you as long as they are based on their religious beliefs.

 

  1. Be prepared for people to express abhorrent views about you, to you, in all areas of public life

 

In fact, people will be to express such views about you, to you, in all areas of public life: on the plane or boat you arrive on; at the airport; in taxis, ubers, buses, ferries, trains and other forms of transport; at hotels, motels and B&Bs; at galleries, museums and other tourist attractions; at cafes and restaurants; at shops. Everywhere you go while you are in Australia.

 

That’s because the Religious Discrimination Act exempts ‘statements of belief’ from constituting discrimination under all other Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, as long as those statements are based on that person’s religious beliefs and fall short of harassment, threats, serious intimidation or incitement to hatred or violence.

 

  1. If you are subjected to abhorrent views and wish to make a complaint, try to find out whether the person expressing them is religious

 

Because abhorrent views are protected where they are based on religious beliefs, you may be able to complain about homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic comments that are not motivated by religion.[iii] Therefore, if you wish to make a complaint about such mistreatment, you will first need to work out whether the person making the statement is religious.

 

In practice, it may be difficult to determine whether someone is religious and/or whether their anti-LGBTI prejudice is based on their religious beliefs. It may also be physically unsafe to do so. In these circumstances, it may be wiser not to make a complaint and instead try to avoid the person(s) expressing such views (if possible).[iv]

 

  1. If you need emergency food or shelter during your stay, consider pretending to be Christian

 

In Australia, the Government outsources a wide range of health, education and other community services to religious organisations. This includes some homelessness shelters, as well as food vans and other welfare services.

 

Under the Religious Discrimination Act, religious charities are able to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in terms of who they provide these services to, even where they are providing them with public funding.

 

Given the vast majority of faith-based charities in Australia are Christian, if you experience financial difficulties during your stay and need emergency food or shelter, you should consider pretending to be Christian. You may even need to pretend to be from the specific Christian denomination providing that service (eg Catholic or Anglican).

 

**********

 

The above warnings might sound absurd, but if the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill becomes law in its current form, then they will be all too real.

 

And we will have a responsibility to provide these warnings to all LGBTI tourists to Australia, not just during Mardi Gras and World Pride, Midsumma, Feast and other pride festivals around the country, but all year round, each and every year.

 

Of course, it won’t just be tourists who will be adversely affected by this legislation either. In fact, all of the warnings I have included will also apply to LGBTI Australians.

 

Doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners will be able to refuse to provide specific health services and treatments to us, and we won’t necessarily know before we make an appointment.

 

Everyone in public life (including health practitioners, as well as people providing education, accommodation, transportation, food and other goods and services) will be able to express abhorrent views about us, and to us, as long as those views are religiously-motivated.

 

And if we fall on hard times, our religion (or lack of religion) may determine whether we are able to access some publicly-funded essential services.

 

The only glimmer of hope is that this post is a potential warning, rather than an actual one. It is only a Religious Discrimination Bill at this stage, not an Act. This disturbing vision of the future can still be prevented from becoming a reality – but only if we take action now.

 

Please speak up in the coming days and weeks. If you see a federal politician at Fair Day, or at the Mardi Gras Parade, ask them whether they will vote against a Religious Discrimination Bill that takes rights away from the LGBTI community. If they post about it on twitter, facebook or other socials, ask them the same thing.

 

You should also write to:

  • ALP MPs and Senators
  • Greens MP and Senators
  • Centre Alliance Senators (if you’re in South Australia)
  • Senator Jacqui Lambie (if you’re in Tasmania), and
  • Liberate moderate/gay and lesbian MPs (including Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson, Angie Bell, Warren Entsch, Senator Dean Smith)

because they will help determine whether this legislation becomes a waking nightmare, or just a temporary bad dream.

 

PFLAG Australia has made this process easy, using the website Equality, Not Discrimination. Equality Australia has a similar helpful platform, here. Make your voice heard, because this legislation will affect LGBTI tourists, and LGBTI Australians, alike.

 

Rainbow Bridge

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

 

Footnotes:

[i] Attorney-General Christian Porter confirmed that trans and gender diverse patients could be denied treatment on the day he released the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill:

“Mr Porter used the example of a GP who did not want to ‘engage in hormone therapies’ for a trans person. ‘That’s fine, but you have to exercise that in a consistent way, so you don’t engage in the procedure at all’.”

‘Rules for doctors, pharmacists tightened in new religious discrimination bill’, 10 December 2019, Sydney Morning Herald.

[ii] The explanatory notes to the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill confirm this. At para 549, on page 66:

‘For example, a statement by a doctor to a transgender patient of their religious belief that God made men and women in his image and that gender is therefore binary may be a statement of belief, provided it is made in good faith. However, a refusal by that doctor to provide medical services to a transgender person because of their religious belief that gender was binary would not constitute a statement of belief as the refusal to provide services constitutes an action beyond simply stating a belief, and therefore may constitute discrimination on the basis of gender identity.’

[iii] This also depends on the jurisdiction the tourist finds themselves in. Anti-LGBTI vilification is not prohibited under Commonwealth law, or in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory. Anti-LGBTI vilification is prohibited in both Tasmania and the ACT, anti-LGBT vilification is prohibited in Queensland, while NSW has different coverage for inciting or threatening violence (LGBTI), or civil vilification (only lesbian, gay and binary transgender). For more see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[iv] Indeed, this seems to be the Government’s intention – to discourage people who experience discriminatory conduct from bringing complaints.

Submission to Victorian Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections

The Committee Manager

Legislative Assembly Legal and Social Issues Committee

Parliament House, Spring St

East Melbourne VIC 3002

Submitted via: avpinquiry@parliament.vic.gov.au

Thursday 19 December 2019

 

To the Committee

 

Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections

 

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on this important subject.

 

I do so as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, having previously served on the Committee of Management of the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (2004-05, and 2007).

 

In this submission, I will primarily focus on term of reference 8: ‘Possible extension of protections or expansion of protection to classes of people not currently protected under the existing Act.’

 

As the Committee is aware, Victoria currently only provides protection against vilification on the basis of two attributes – race (section 7) and religion (section 8) – under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic).

 

From an LGBTI perspective this is incredibly disappointing, especially because the similar absence of LGBTI anti-vilification protections under Commonwealth law, which only covers race,[i] means that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Victorians currently have no vilification protections at either level.

 

This stands in contrast to the laws of several other Australian jurisdictions.

 

For example, Tasmania protects against ‘incite[ment of] hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or a group of persons on the ground of’ sexual orientation,[ii] gender identity[iii] and intersex variations of sex characteristics.[iv]

 

Tasmania’s best practice legislation also prohibits ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person on the basis of an attribute’, which again includes sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex variations of sex characteristics.[v]

 

The Australian Capital Territory protects against ‘incite[ment of] hatred toward, revulsion of, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of’ persons on the basis of gender identity,[vi] intersex status[vii] and sexuality.[viii]

 

Although I note that intersex advocates have called for protection of the attribute of ‘sex characteristics’,[ix] rather than ‘intersex status’, reflecting both the biological rather than identity-based nature of variations of sex characteristics, and to promote consistency with the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10.[x]

 

Queensland also prohibits the ‘incite[ment of] hatred towards, serious contempt of, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of persons on the ground of the race, religion, sexuality or gender identity of the person of members of the group.’[xi]

 

Meanwhile, NSW has adopted two separate, and in some ways contradictory, approaches to vilification. It provides civil protection against vilification (which includes ‘incite[ment of] hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of’) to binary[xii] transgender people,[xiii] and lesbians and gay men.[xiv]

 

On the other hand, in 2018 NSW Parliament amended the Crimes Act 1900 to provide that ‘[a] person who, by public act, intentionally or recklessly threatens or incites violence towards another person or a group of persons on any of the following grounds is guilty of an offence’ and nominated sexual orientation,[xv] gender identity[xvi] and intersex status.[xvii]

 

Overall, then, LGBTI people are protected against vilification in both Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, LGBT people are protected in Queensland, and lesbians, gay men and some trans people have access to civil protection in New South Wales, while all LGBTI people are covered by the narrower criminal offence of ‘publicly threatening or inciting violence’ in that state.

 

Of course, the fact other jurisdictions have adopted a different approach to this issue is not necessarily a compelling argument that Victoria should do the same. However, I do support such an expansion for two main reasons.

 

First, in principle, there is no reason why vilification on the basis of race or religion should be treated any differently to vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

Vilification on any of these attributes is serious, and racial or religious vilification is no more serious than anti-LGBTI vilification. This is especially so given the harm caused by each type of vilification can be severe, and therefore the conduct which contributes to this harm should be prohibited, irrespective of whether it is racist, anti-religious or homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic.

 

Second, in practice, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians remain exposed to unacceptably high rates of discrimination and vilification on the basis of who they are.

 

This was particularly demonstrated during the Commonwealth Government’s 2017 Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey, and its lingering aftermath.

 

This unnecessary, wasteful and divisive vote on the rights of a minority group encouraged people to ‘have their say’ about LGBTI Australians, and inevitably (and, it should be noted, entirely predictably) stirred up significant amounts of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia against us.

 

Sadly, once the genie of anti-LGBTI bigotry was deliberately let out of the bottle by the Turnbull Liberal-National Government, it will take the rest of us many years, if not decades, of concerted effort to put it back in again.

 

This can be seen by the ongoing hate-based campaign targeting trans and gender diverse people, and especially trans children, which appears on an almost daily basis in our nation’s newspapers, and elsewhere.

 

As we enter the 2020s, the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia whipped up by the Commonwealth Government in the last decade still haunts us, and will likely continue to do so for some time yet.

 

For both of these reasons, principled and practical, I urge the Victorian Parliament to follow the lead of other jurisdictions and introduce vilification protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

 

Recommendation 1: That the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) be amended to prohibit vilification on the basis of:

  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity, and
  • sex characteristics.

 

I note that the Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019, introduced by Fiona Patten MLC, proposes to do exactly that. It also proposes to add gender, and disability, to the list of attributes that would be protected against vilification under that legislation.

 

While I am not an expert on gender or disability-based vilification, for (at least) the first of the reasons outlined above, I can see no good reason why Victorians should not also be protected against vilification on the basis of these attributes.

 

Recommendation 2: That the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) be amended to prohibit vilification on the basis of gender and disability.

 

One final issue I would like to address in this submission also arises through Ms Patten’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019, and specifically relates to proposed amendments to section 24 of the principal Act which creates the offence of serious racial vilification.

 

These amendments would add the words ‘or recklessly’ to, and remove the words ‘the offender knows’ from, the fault element of this offence.

 

I support both changes. The first change would help create consistency with the offences established in other jurisdictions (including the recently-introduced NSW Crimes Act 1900 provisions).

 

The second would remove the ‘offender knows’ subjective test from this offence, which is important because such harmful conduct should be prohibited irrespective of whether the specific offender knew that was the likely outcome.

 

Recommendation 3: That serious vilification offences in the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) be amended to prohibit intentionally or recklessly engaging in conduct that is likely to incite hatred, or to threaten, or incite others to threaten, physical harm or harm to property.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration as part of this inquiry. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you require additional information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

Fiona Patten

Fiona Patten MLC, whose Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019 would protect LGBTI Victorians against vilification.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Section 18C Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

[ii] Section 19(c) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[iii] Section 19(e) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[iv] Section 19(e) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[v] Section 17(1) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[vi] Section 67A(1)(b) Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT).

[vii] Section 67A(1)(d) Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT).

[viii] Section 67A(1)(g) Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT).

[ix] Darlington Statement, March 2017, Article 9: ‘We call for effective legislative protection from discrimination and harmful practices on grounds of sex characteristics.’

[x] Which defines sex characteristics as ‘each person’s physical features relating to sex, including genitalia and other sexual and reproductive anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and secondary physical features emerging from puberty.’ Yogyakarta Principles plus 10, 10 November 2017.

[xi] Section 124A Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld).

[xii] Because the definition of transgender in section 38A only protects a person:

(a) ‘who identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or

(b) who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex…’

[xiii] Section 38S Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW).

[xiv] Section 49ZT Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW).

[xv] Section 93Z(1)(c) Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

[xvi] Section 93Z(1)(d) Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

[xvii] Section 93Z(1)(e) Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill(s)

The Religious Discrimination Bill(s), released by Attorney-General Christian Porter in late August, remind me a lot of the ongoing Sydney apartment crisis.

 

They are the inevitable consequence of a system that has been designed to serve the interests of one group over and above everyone else. Except instead of property developers, these new laws would benefit religious fundamentalists. While those left picking up the tab are women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disabilities, and plenty of others.

 

And, just like a recently-built Sydney apartment, what might seem shiny and new on first inspection reveals a growing list of defects the closer one looks.

 

Here then is a look at the serious problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill(s) that we are already aware of (a list I’m sure will grow if we ever have the misfortune of ‘living’ under these shoddily-constructed laws):

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities

 

The worst provision of the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is proposed section 41. This provides that ‘statements of belief’ are basically exempt from discrimination complaints under all Commonwealth, State and Territory anti-discrimination laws (including the Fair Work Act 2009).

 

As long as the person making such comments does so on the basis of their religion and they are made ‘in good faith’, they will be lawful unless the person on the receiving end can show they are malicious, or likely to harass, vilify, incite hatred or violence. In practice, that would be extremely difficult to prove.

 

This section is a radical departure from our current anti-discrimination framework, under which Commonwealth laws like the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and State and Territory laws like the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, operate alongside each other, allowing victims to decide where to complain.

 

The provision also specifically overrides section 17(1) of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, which prohibits conduct that ‘offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’ people on the basis of a wide range of protected attributes, including:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Lawful sexual activity
  • Gender identity
  • Intersex variations of sex characteristics
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Relationship status
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Parental status, [and]
  • Family responsibilities.

 

That’s a long list of groups who will find themselves the targets of derogatory comments having lost one of the few effective shields against them.

 

But that’s exactly what section 41 seems intended to achieve: to make it easier for religious fundamentalists to speak evil, and write evil, comments about different groups. With the obvious consequence that women, LGBTI people and others will be forced to see evil and hear evil comments about themselves.

 

This provision would build a fundamental imbalance into our existing anti-discrimination system, privileging the rights of one group within society at the expense of everyone else. It must not be allowed to pass.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion

 

Another serious problem of the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill are provisions which are based on the circumstances of a certain (ex-)footballer.

 

Proposed sub-sections 8(3) and 8(4) would make it much more difficult for major employers (organisations with revenue of at least $50 million per year) to introduce codes of conduct that prevent employees from making derogatory comments about minorities outside ordinary working hours where those comments are ‘statements of belief’.

 

The only way an employer will be able to enforce such restrictions is if they are able to demonstrate failure to do so would inflict ‘unjustifiable financial hardship’ on them. On a practical level, it will be extremely difficult to prove hypothetical yet significant future harm in order to justify imposing these rules in the here and now. Many big businesses will (quite understandably) simply avoid doing so.

 

It should also be noted that ‘unjustifiable financial hardship’ is the only criteria to permit these codes of conduct. They cannot be implemented on the basis of wanting to promote diversity and inclusion within the workplace (including to make other employees feel welcome), or to associate their ‘brand’ with values of diversity and inclusion more broadly – unless they can attach a sufficiently-large dollar value to it.

 

Once again the likely consequence of these provisions is to make it easier for religious fundamentalists to make offensive comments about women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disabilities, among others. That seems to be the opposite outcome to what a well-constructed anti-discrimination law should achieve.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to serve minorities

 

The next major defect of the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is also found in proposed section 8 – this time sub-sections 8(5) and 8(6). These provisions make it easier for health practitioners to conscientiously object to providing health services.

 

If, upon reading this, you think these provisions must be referring to ‘controversial’ medical procedures such as abortion and euthanasia, you should be aware they actually cover a much, much wider range of health services.

 

This includes assisted reproductive technology, where health practitioners would presumably be empowered to ‘conscientiously object’ to providing access to single women, unmarried couples and LGBTI people.

 

But even that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of services where it will be more difficult to impose ‘health practitioner conduct rules’ to treat all patients with dignity and respect. Indeed, the definition of ‘health service’ in section 5 ‘means a service provided in the practice of any of the following health professions:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practice
  • Dental …
  • Medical
  • Medical radiation practice
  • Midwifery
  • Nursing
  • Occupational therapy
  • Optometry
  • Pharmacy
  • Physiotherapy
  • Podiatry, [and]
  • Psychology.’

 

This full list makes it abundantly clear these provisions are not restricted to permitting health practitioners to refuse to perform certain acts, but instead will encourage them to refuse to serve certain classes of people (unless someone can explain what ‘controversial’ procedures are involved in dentistry, medical radiation practice, or optometry).

 

For example, it could allow a pharmacist to refuse to dispense hormone treatments to trans customers, while providing them to cisgender women. Indeed, this is something that the Human Rights Law Alliance (which is aligned to the Australian Christian Lobby) has been publicly advocating.

 

If you are now thinking that these provisions have the potential to substantively undermine Australia’s health care system, and in particular the right of all people to access essential health services without fear of discrimination on the basis of who they are, you would be right.

 

Both of these sets of unusual amendments to the ordinary ‘reasonableness’ test for indirect discrimination (sub-sections 8(3) and (4) re big business, and sub-sections 8(5) and (6) re health practitioners) must be rejected.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it easier for religious bodies to discriminate against others

 

The fourth and final serious problem in the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is the broad ‘exception’ in proposed section 10 that would allow religious bodies, including religious schools and registered charities, to discriminate against others on the basis of religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

Given this provision effectively allows discrimination between religions, it would be tempting for women’s organisations, and groups representing LGBTI Australians, to give it less attention than those outlined above. But it would be ill-advised to ignore its potentially far-reaching consequences.

 

For example, the test to allow discrimination: ‘conduct that may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion’, will be much easier to satisfy than the existing criteria in section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984: ‘an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion’ [emphasis added].

 

If the test in section 10 of the Religious Discrimination Bill becomes law, it would set a negative precedent, with some in the Government then pushing for the same, lower standard to be included in the Sex Discrimination Act (potentially through the current Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into religious exceptions).

 

The exception in section 10 also applies to an incredibly wide range of circumstances. For example, it would allow a religious school to expel a student in year 12 for expressing doubts about the school’s religion (something that is specifically excluded under equivalent laws in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory, which allow discrimination on the basis of religious belief at admission, but not once enrolled).

 

Finally, if section 10 becomes law it could set up a potential ‘time-bomb’ for future anti-discrimination reform. If and when we finally achieve repeal of the religious exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, this provision could allow religious schools to expel LGBT students who refuse to repent for their sexual orientation or gender identity (where the school attempts to claim they are not discriminating because they are LGBT, but instead on the basis of their religious beliefs about being LGBT).

 

For all of these reasons, proposed section 10 must be substantially narrowed in order to avoid creating a structural flaw not just in the Religious Discrimination Bill itself, but across anti-discrimination legislation more generally.

 

**********

 

These four sets of provisions are dangerous, unprecedented, unwanted and unwarranted additions to Australia’s anti-discrimination regime (so much so they might be described as the four horsemen of our ‘religious freedom’ apocalypse).

 

They will disturb any sense of balance or proportion in our laws, by making it clear the right of religious fundamentalists to discriminate against others is more important than the rights of women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disabilities and others to live their lives free from discrimination.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will ensure that religious belief is privileged in several key ways, in an almost unlimited range of everyday situations.

 

But they are not the only threats in the draft laws released by the Attorney-General a fortnight ago.

 

You may have noticed in this article’s title, and introduction, references to Religious Discrimination Bill(s). That’s because, along with the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill itself, Mr Porter also released the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2019.

 

While these two Bills have received far less attention than the Religious Discrimination Bill, they too contain provisions that could undermine the human rights of other Australians, including:

 

The Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill creates the unnecessary position of Religious Freedom Commissioner

 

The Government’s own Religious Freedom Review (aka the ‘Ruddock Review’) found it was not necessary to create the position of Religious Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

Despite this, the Consequential Amendments Bill would do exactly that. Further, it frames this position as a Religious Freedom Commissioner, in contrast to the Age, Disability, Race and Sex Commissioners who are all explicitly appointed as ‘Discrimination’ Commissioners.

 

Finally, adding insult to injury, the Government would be appointing a Religious Freedom Commissioner when LGBTI Australians still do not have our own Commissioner, more than six years since the introduction of protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill unnecessarily amends the objects clauses of anti-discrimination laws

 

This Bill would introduce the following words into the objects clauses of all other Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws:

 

‘In giving effect to the objects of this Act, regard is to be had to the indivisibility and universality of human rights, and the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights.’

 

Which sounds innocuous enough, except that in the explanatory notes for the Bill the only other human right that is specifically mentioned by name is ‘the right to freedom of religion.’

 

These explanatory notes can and will be used by the judiciary in determining how these amended objects clauses affect the interpretation of the Racial, Sex, Disability and Age Discrimination Acts, potentially giving more weight to so-called religious freedom (at a time when we need to be reducing religious exceptionalism, not exacerbating it).

 

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill unnecessarily ‘protects’ charities advocating discriminatory marriage

 

This Bill would also amend the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) to ensure that charities that advocate for only cisgender heterosexual marriage are not de-registered. Specifically, it would include the following in section 11:

 

‘To avoid doubt, the purpose of engaging in, or promoting, activities that support a view of marriage as a union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, is not, of itself, a disqualifying purpose.’

 

Except, when the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) was amended in 2017, the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission advised Parliament such an amendment was not needed. And, in the two years since then, there is exactly zero evidence of any charity being adversely affected.

 

Nor is there any justification for singling out this one discriminatory and exclusionary belief for special protection in our charities regulation.

 

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill inserts more discriminatory religious exceptions into the Marriage Act

 

Speaking of the Marriage Act, this Bill would also insert even more religious exceptions into that law. Specifically, new section 47C would explicitly allow religious educational institutions to discriminate in the provision of facilities, goods and services for the purposes of the solemnisation of marriage.

 

This would permit schools to discriminate against LGBTI couples, divorced people re-marrying and people who had previously cohabitated – even where these facilities, goods and services are provided publicly on a commercial or for-profit basis.

 

As I have written previously, the amendments that were included in the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 already mean we do not currently enjoy genuine marriage equality in this country. We should be aiming to remove those religious exceptions, not entrench them.

 

**********

 

I wrote at the beginning of this post that the Religious Discrimination Bill(s) share several similarities with the ongoing Sydney apartment crisis.

 

But there is also one key difference – while these plans have been drafted, they have not yet been ‘built’. Which means there is still time to avert this new crisis, for the Morrison Government, and Parliament more generally, to amend the Religious Discrimination Bill and its two accompanying laws, and thereby avoid their adverse impact on large numbers of everyday Australians.

 

However, if the Government and Parliament fail to listen and take action, and instead pass these Bills unamended, they will be condemning women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disabilities and others to live under the legislative equivalent of Opal Tower, or Mascot Towers.

 

We will always be fearful of the next crack to emerge: of the next time we are discriminated against simply because of who we are, entirely lawfully, because of somebody else’s religious beliefs. We will never get to feel at home.

 

Opal Tower

The Religious Discrimination Bill(s) are the legislative equivalent of Opal Tower – but there’s still time to avert a new crisis, if the Government and Parliament are willing to listen.

 

To find out more about everyday situations in which religious beliefs will be privileged, check out this twitter thread. And if you’ve enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile.

 

What to Expect, and What to Fear, from the Religious Discrimination Bill

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Christian Porter

What kind of Religious Discrimination Bill will Attorney-General Christian Porter deliver?

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[ii] Scott Morrison meets with faith leaders on religious freedom bill but not LGBTQI advocates, Star Observer, 7 August 2019.

[iii] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[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.

[viii] See A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ix] Religious Freedom Review: Final Report.

[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].

[xiii] See Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

[xiv] See the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet website.

[xv] See No, we don’t have genuine marriage equality yet.

[xvi] From Parliament House website.

[xvii] From Senator Paterson’s website.