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.




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

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[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.