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.

 

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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.

 

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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.