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.

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).

 

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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

 

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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.

The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked

It is ironic that a Bill that uses the phrase ‘in good faith’ multiple times (four times in the First Exposure Draft, and nine times in the Second) was itself developed through a process that was the polar opposite.

The Religious Discrimination Bill is the end product of the Religious Freedom Review, which was a gift to religious fundamentalists during parliamentary debate about marriage equality in 2017, and was payback against LGBTI Australians for having the temerity to demand equal rights under secular law.

When that review was finally released in December 2018, Attorney-General Christian Porter promised that the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill would be similar to other anti-discrimination laws, and ‘follow a very standard architecture’.[i] Instead he has delivered incredibly complex legislation with several unique, special rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others (more on that below).

Mr Porter also stated in December 2018 that ‘we are well-advanced on the drafting of [the Bill] and which we would have out early next year [2019], so that people can see it.’ Yet the Liberal-National Government did not reveal any details of the Bill until after the May 2019 federal election, leaving voters in the dark about a central plank of their platform (perhaps some voters may have voted differently had they known their human rights would later come under sustained attack).

In August, the Guardian Australia reported that:

Christian Porter has sought to allay concerns that a federal religious discrimination bill could water down protections for LGBT people in state legislation. The attorney general told Guardian Australia the bill “is not intended to displace state law…”’[ii]

But when the First Exposure Draft Bill was released on 29 August it did exactly that, with clause 41 directly over-riding Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, and specifically over-riding Tasmania’s best practice protections against ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults of ridicules’[iii] others, including women, LGBTI people and others.

At no point between December 2018 and August 2019 did the Morrison Government consult with anyone other than the religious organisations who would benefit from the Bill. There was no engagement with any of the people who stood to lose the most, from women, to LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and people with disability.

Even when the Attorney-General released the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill for public comment – and received a deluge of criticism from representatives of those groups, as well as the vast majority of civil society organisations, and even the Australian Human Rights Commission, the independent body who would be responsible for overseeing any legislation once passed – Porter, and the Government, have chosen to ignore that feedback.

In fact, the only major substantive change to the Bill was something demanded by religious organisations – to expand its religious exceptions even further, allowing religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in employment. Even when receiving taxpayers money to deliver public services.

It is completely unsurprising that, having undertaken a bad faith process to develop its legislation, the Government has produced what is essentially a ‘bad faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill. A Bill that prioritises and privileges the rights of religious individuals and organisations over and above everyone else.

This can be seen in how the Second Exposure Draft[iv] differs from the First in relation to its four major problems[v] – or, rather, in how there is nothing to separate the two Bills, meaning the Government has not addressed these flaws.

 

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

Clause 42 (which was previously clause 41) continues to exempt ‘statements of belief’ from discrimination complaints under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and Tasmania’s best practice Anti-Discrimination Act 1998.

Indeed, multiple changes to the Bill will actually ensure more discriminatory statements of belief are protected from legal consequences. This includes expanding the definition of statements of belief (so that they do not need to align with the mainstream views of any religion, but can be from the extreme fringes of faith), as well as providing that comments will be protected even where they are ‘moderately’ intimidating towards the victim.[vi]

Nor has the Government addressed the constitutional flaws of this provision. Because the Bill would introduce a Commonwealth defence to state laws, state tribunals would legally be unable to determine whether the defence was valid. So where a person makes a complaint of discrimination, and a respondent claims it was a ‘statement of belief’, it would need to be referred from the tribunal to a court to hear that particular issue, and then referred back to the tribunal to determine the remainder of the complaint – massively increasing the costs and time involved, with the likely outcome that many discrimination complaints will be withdrawn no matter how valid they are.

Overall, clause 42 will still encourage degrading and demeaning comments about women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability, and even people from minority faiths,[vii] in all areas of public life, from workplaces to schools and universities, health care, aged care and other community services, to cafes, restaurants and even shops.

 

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

There have been some minor improvements to the ‘conscientious objection’ provisions in the Second Exposure Draft (previously clauses 8(5) and (6), now clauses 8(6) and (7) of the Bill). This includes narrowing the list of health practitioners who will be able to take advantage of these sections, as well as including a note that they are not intended to allow practitioners to refuse to provide a service to a category of people.

But, in practice, these changes are superficial rather than substantive. The list of practitioners who remain covered:

  • Doctors
  • Midwives
  • Nurses
  • Pharmacists, and
  • Psychologists

means the vast majority of interactions between patients and the health system are nevertheless potentially jeopardised via ‘conscientious objection’.

Meanwhile, the distinction between refusing to provide a service to a category of people (which would not be permitted) and refusing to provide a category of service to people (which would be) is so blurry as to be meaningless.

As Attorney-General Porter himself confirmed when releasing the Second Exposure Draft, it is designed to protect ‘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.”’[viii]

The net effect is that GPs and pharmacists will be empowered to:

  • Refuse to provide reproductive health services, even where this disproportionately affects women
  • Refuse to provide PEP and/or PrEP, even there this disproportionately affects gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and
  • Refuse to provide hormone therapy (including puberty blockers), even where this disproportionately affects trans and gender diverse people.

Overall, clauses 8(6) and (7) will still encourage practitioners to refuse to provide vital health care services to some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community.

 

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

In fact, as hinted at earlier, the religious exceptions contained in the Second Exposure Draft will make it even easier for even more religious organisations to discriminate in even more circumstances.

Clause 11 (which was previously clause 10), provides an exception to all religious schools and universities, as well as ‘registered public benevolent institutions’ (even where providing commercial services to members of the public), as well as ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’.

This exception allows these bodies to discriminate on the ground of religion in both employment, and who they provide services to (or withhold services from).

The test for determining whether the organisation can (ab)use these special privileges is also much easier to satisfy in the Second Exposure Draft. In fact, there are now two alternative tests, and the organisation need only satisfy one:

  • Clause 11(3) is already a lower standard than the existing religious exception in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), because the organisation can simply act, ‘in good faith, in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion’ – unlike section 37(1)(d) of the SDA, these acts do not need to be ‘necessary’.
  • Clause 11(1) sets an even lower standard again. It provides that a ‘religious body does not discriminate against a person under this Act by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion.’

This second test is entirely subjective. A religious body is only required to demonstrate that one other person considers their discrimination is in accordance with their faith. They don’t even have to agree with the discrimination itself! This hurdle is so easy to clear that it is almost impossible to imagine any scenario where a court or tribunal will disallow religious discrimination by these organisations.

Which is particularly devastating because the Second Exposure Draft also expands the types of organisations that can take advantage of these privileges.

Clauses 32(8) and (10) allow religious hospitals, aged care services and accommodation providers to discriminate in employment on the ground of religion. And clauses 33(2) and (4) permit religious camps and conference sites to discriminate in who they provide services to (even where these are facilities run on a commercial basis and otherwise open to the public).

As I have written previously, these religious exceptions will mean that:

  • A professor can be denied a job because they are Jewish.
  • A doctor can be refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.
  • A school student can be expelled because they are atheist.
  • A homeless person can miss out on a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.
  • A charity worker can be rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.
  • An aged care employee can lose shifts because they are agnostic.

Overall, clause 11 (and related clauses) will fundamentally divide Australia, by empowering religious organisations to discriminate both in employment, and in who they provide services to, on the grounds of religion. And they will be able to do so while using taxpayers’ money. Your money. My money, Our money.

 

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

Clauses 8(3) and (5) (which were previously 8(3) and (4)) are the provisions which were created in response to the circumstances of a certain ex-footballer – by making it incredibly difficult for organisations with revenue of at least $50 million per annum to impose codes of conduct that prevent an employee from making discriminatory comments outside their ordinary hours of employment.

These clauses have been slightly improved in the Second Exposure Draft. By clarifying they only protect employees in conduct ‘other than in the course of the employee’s employment’, it actually applies to a reduced set of circumstances.

But Attorney-General Porter has also included a new clause 8(4), which makes things much worse again – by preventing qualifying bodies (like legal admission or medical registration bodies) from taking into account degrading or demeaning public comments which applicants may have made ‘unless compliance with the rule by the person is an essential requirement of the profession, trade or occupation’.

Previously, these bodies may have denied admission or registration on the basis that the applicant was not a ‘fit and proper person’ – instead, homophobes, biphobes and transphobes will be encouraged to discriminate with little or no professional consequences.

**********

Any of these problems should be sufficient in and of itself for anyone interested in human rights for all Australians, and not just for some, to oppose the Bill. All of them together should be enough for Labor, the Greens and Senate Cross-Bench to vote against it – although only the Greens’ opposition is secure at this stage.

And that’s not even including some of the other ‘lesser’ problems in the package of ‘religious freedom’ laws the Government is seeking to pass, which are each significant in their own right:[ix]

  • Creating a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission, to advance the ‘religious freedom’ agenda, even though such a position was not recommended by the Government’s own Ruddock Review, and while LGBTI Australians continue to be denied a Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics Commissioner.
  • Amending the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to reinforce the ability of religious educational institutions to reject same-sex weddings, even where they provide those services to the public on a commercial basis – and despite the fact such a ban was not previously required to reject divorced people remarrying (meaning this is essentially an anti-marriage equality provision),[x] and
  • Amending the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) to ‘protect’ charities advocating against an inclusive definition of marriage, even though the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) explicitly stated such a clause was not needed, and despite the fact no other type of advocacy (from Indigenous, to environmental or LGBTI) is protected in this way.

Unfortunately, there are even more problems in the Religious Discrimination Bill, and its two related Bills (the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill), although it would take too long to describe them all in detail here.

In short, these are deeply flawed Bills, developed through a bad faith process, that will have a terrible impact on women, LGBTI people, people with disability and others. If passed, they would lead to increased division between different communities, changing our country for the worse. They must be blocked.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this debate is that a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill, one that protected people of faith and no faith against discrimination on the basis of who they are, would have been a welcome development.

If the Government had prepared the Religious Discrimination Bill in good faith, it would have been met with substantial community goodwill. Instead, they listened to religious fundamentalists, and have now released two slightly different versions of legislation containing the same fundamental flaw – it increases discrimination rather than reducing it.

Significantly, the victims of the Government’s Bill will not only be women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, and people with disability. People from minority faiths, atheists and agnostics all stand to lose under Attorney-General Porter’s, and Prime Minister Morrison’s, disingenuous and disastrous Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

Anti-discrimination legislation should reduce discrimination, not increase it. It should unite us, rather than divide us. The Religious Discrimination Bill fails on those most fundamental criteria. It is a bad faith Bill, and the only possible good outcome from here would be for it to be rejected in its entirety.

 

Take Action

One of my main objectives for the blog this year is to include practical information on as many posts as possible about actions readers can take. In this instance, there are at least three things you can do:

 

  1. Write a submission on the Second Exposure Draft Bills

The Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills are open for public consultation until Friday 31 January 2020. Details of the Bills are here, and you can send written submissions via email to FoRConsultation@ag.gov.au

You don’t have to be a lawyer to make a submission, nor do you need to comment on all of the Bills’ many problems. Instead, you can simply describe your general concerns about the proposed legislation, as well as any specific fears about its impact on you and your community. Some suggested points include:

  • All Australians deserve to be protected against discrimination.
  • This includes people of faith, and no faith. But it must also include women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability and others.
  • Unfortunately, the Second Exposure Draft Religious Freedom Bill will increase discrimination against many groups, including people from minority faiths, rather than reduce it.
  • It will encourage people to make ‘statements of belief’ that degrade and demean others just because of who they are, in workplaces, schools and universities, health care, aged care and community services, cafes, restaurants, shops and other public places.
  • It will encourage doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners to refuse to provide vital health services to vulnerable Australians.
  • It will encourage religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith, in schools and universities, hospitals, aged care and other community services, even where they are delivering essential public services using public funding.
  • The Government should scrap the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and prepare a new Bill that reduces discrimination rather than increasing it.
  • If the Government fails to do so, the Parliament must reject the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill, and associated ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

 

  1. Write to MPs and Senators expressing your concerns

While submissions about the Exposure Draft Bills are valuable, it is essential you also convey your concerns directly to your elected representatives.

It is especially important to write to the following:

  • 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).

PFLAG Australia has made this process easy, using the website Equality, Not Discrimination.

You can also access a range of materials from Equality Australia here, including a submission-writing toolkit.

 

  1. Attend a public rally against the Bills

For those who prefer their activism to be on the streets, there will also be a number of public rallies around the country in coming weeks, including:

Sydney: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Sydney Town Hall

Melbourne: Sunday 9 February at 1pm, State Library of Victoria

Brisbane: Saturday 1 February at 5pm, King George Square, and

Perth: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Forrest Chase

The bad faith Religious Discrimination Bill, and the two other proposed ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills, can be blocked, but only if we all take action together.

 

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter, author of the ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

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 Media Conference, 13 December 2018.

[ii]Christian Porter says religious freedom bill won’t erode state LGBT protections’ 12 July 2019.

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

[iv] The complete Religious Freedom Bills – Second Exposure Drafts (which includes the updated Religious Discrimination Bill) can be found here.

[v] See The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[vi] Clause 42(2) provides that statements of belief will not be protected if it is:

  • malicious
  • that would, or is likely to, harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify another person or group of persons; or
  • would be considered ‘counselling, promoting, encouraging or urging conduct that would constitute a serious offence.’

[vii] See The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

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

[ix] For more detail, see The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[x] Unfortunately, it would not be the only provision in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which discriminated against same-sex couples, despite the postal survey result. For more see: No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet.

The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill

On Saturday 30 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that his Government would not meet its commitment to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

 

Instead, he announced they would be releasing ‘a revised and further exposure draft of the RDA Bill to reflect the Government’s response to the consultation to date and provide further opportunity for engagement.’ [i]

 

On an optimistic reading, this means there is more opportunity for the Government to listen to all of the criticisms of this legislation, from women, LGBTI people, legal organisations and the Australian Human Rights Commission, that the Religious Discrimination Bill requires substantial amendment because it authorises discrimination against large sections of the Australian community.

 

Unfortunately, based on all evidence to date, we have more reason to be pessimistic, and instead fear that the Government will only listen to religious fundamentalists demanding even more special privileges to discriminate.

 

The only change to the Bill which Attorney-General Christian Porter highlighted at the National Press Club on 20 November[ii] was an amendment to ensure that ‘religious hospitals and aged-care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to employment of staff’ (in other words, allowing them to discriminate).

 

There have been no indications of positive changes to the Bill, to reduce its adverse impact on women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships, people with disability and others. Nor was there any reason to be hopeful in the Prime Minister’s media release confirming the delay.

 

However, what I really want to highlight here is the inconsistency of two of Morrison’s statements in that release.

 

Specifically, he criticises Labor for ‘a lack of genuine commitment … to the principle that Australians who hold sincere religious beliefs in this country deserve the same legal protections that are rightly provided in other areas such as gender and race.’

 

But then later the Prime Minister also says ‘Our Government will continue to proceed on the basis of good faith with a view to having a balanced and common sense Bill that protects the important religious freedoms that Australians can sadly no longer take for granted.’

 

Except these two concepts – a Religious Discrimination Bill, and religious freedom laws – are very, very different things.

 

Had Morrison actually delivered the former, legislation that simply protects people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination on the same basis as gender, race and other attributes, then not only would Labor have likely welcomed it, but so too would the majority of Australians, including LGBTI people. After all, we know what discrimination is like, and don’t want other people to experience it.

 

Instead, his Government has produced a ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ in name, but a religious freedom law in substance. The most problematic elements of the Exposure Draft – re statements of belief, large employer codes of conduct, conscientious objections by health practitioners and the general ‘religious exception’ in clause 10[iii] – all purport to protect ‘religious freedom’ rather than the right to non-discrimination.

 

Obviously, a lot has been written about the serious flaws of these provisions (including by the author), and particularly about the discrimination they permit against other groups.

 

Perhaps one consequence that hasn’t received as much attention is that they actually make this legislation not just inconsistent in its objectives, but internally contradictory as well.

 

That’s because these same provisions also allow discrimination against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of belief – making it a Religious Discrimination Bill that perversely encourages religious discrimination.

 

For example, the protections for ‘statements of belief’ in clause 41 – which effectively render them exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory discrimination laws – don’t just apply to comments that discriminate against women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

Clause 41 also protects statements of belief that discriminate on the basis of religion. This includes, for example, saying the followers of other religions are ‘unclean heathens destined for eternal damnation’. Just like sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist statements, these derogatory comments will be protected irrespective of where they occur, including in the workplace, in education, in health, and in the provision of goods and services.

 

In the same way, clauses 8(3) and (4) won’t just protect a certain footballer telling gay and trans people they are going to hell – it will protect any religious employee who, outside ordinary work hours, tells people from other religions they’re going to hell, too.

 

The conscientious objection provisions, in clauses 8(5) and (6), are an even bigger threat. As well as allowing health practitioners, from GPs and pharmacists through to optometrists, physiotherapists and even podiatrists, to refuse to serve women, or LGBTI people, they could potentially be (ab)used by a health practitioner to refuse to serve Jewish people, or Muslims, or people from other minority faiths.

 

But the biggest threat of all – especially to minority religions – is found in clause 10. It allows religious schools and universities, charities and ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’,[iv] to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

 

This clause therefore permits discrimination against teachers and students, as well as the employees of – and even people accessing – charities and community services. And, as we have already seen, Attorney-General Porter plans to expand this clause even further to allow religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate in relation to employment (at the very least).

 

Technically, clause 10 protects all religious organisations equally – they will each be able to discriminate in terms of who they employ (or refuse to employ), and provide services to (and who they exclude).

 

Practically, this clause will primarily benefit the largest religious organisations – including the Catholic and Sydney Anglican[v] churches and related education, health and community services organisations – at the expense of everyone else.

 

With the massive outsourcing of public services to these bodies over the past two to three decades, they now receive billions and billions of dollars each and every year, and will be explicitly permitted to use that public funding to discriminate.

 

Not just in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (which is sadly already allowed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), and which the Morrison Government steadfastly refuses to change), but also in relation to religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

That means a professor being denied a job because they are Jewish.

 

A doctor refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.

 

A school student expelled because they are atheist.

 

A homeless person missing out a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.

 

A charity worker rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.

 

An aged care employee losing shifts because they are agnostic.

 

All these scenarios could be legal under the Religious Discrimination Bill, as long as it was a religious organisation doing the discriminating. And they would be using taxpayers’ money – your money, my money, our money – to do so.

 

This outcome – entrenching the power and privilege of the major churches, namely the Catholics and Sydney Anglicans, over and above the rest of us – is the inevitable consequence of the internal contradiction of this legislation.

 

The Morrison Government has chosen to undermine what could and should have been a standard Religious Discrimination Bill – one that would have prohibited most, if not all, of the scenarios described above – with provisions that instead promote ‘religious freedom’.

 

With their decision to release a second Exposure Draft for public consultation, the Government now has the opportunity to make a better, and more informed, choice, and to prepare legislation that reduces religious discrimination rather than increasing it.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to suspend my disbelief that they will choose the right option. Based on everything leading to this point, I have no faith the Government’s ‘revised and further exposure draft’ Bill will be any less of a threat to women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

But we must not forget it is also a threat to minority religions, to Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostic people alike. They too will be subjected to discriminatory statements of belief, and potentially denied access to health care, just because of who they are. And they will be refused employment, and discriminated against in education, health, aged care and community services, all by ‘mainstream’ religious organisations using public monies to do so.

 

Hopefully, they – as well as the many decent Catholic and Anglican people of good faith who oppose new special rights to discriminate – will join us in demanding genuine religious anti-discrimination laws, to replace Morrison’s badly botched Bill.

 

 

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By choosing to include expansive ‘religious freedom’ provisions, Scott Morrison has undermined the ability of the Religious Discrimination Bill to actually prohibit religious discrimination.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Government will Protect Religious Freedoms by Getting Law Right, 30 November 2019.

[ii] Transcript, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Address to National Press Club, 20 November 2019.

[iii] The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[iv] Clause 10(2)(c).

[v] Noting Anglicare Victoria have joined other religious bodies, including Vincent Care Victoria and Uniting Vic.Tas, in criticising the special rights to discriminate contained in the Bill. ‘Religious discrimination bill: Faith-based groups and equality advocates welcome delay’, Guardian Australia, 1 December 2019.