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Religious Discrimination Bills:
A view from the Public Affairs Commission

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Religious Discrimination Bills:
A view from the Public Affairs Commission

Carolyn Tan | Chair of the Public Affairs Commission

The Public Affairs Commission of the national Anglican Church (PAC) recently made written and oral submissions on the Religious Discrimination and associated Bills tabled by the Prime Minister in November 2021. While we supported legislation to prohibit discrimination religion, we could not support the particular form of the main Bill.

Why was the Bill needed? There are gaps in the laws protecting people from religious discrimination, especially in some states. Comprehensive human rights legislation would be a more logical way to protect and balance all the various human rights and responsibilities. Australia does not have a human rights charter, so the Commission supported religious discrimination law to fill the gap.

In Australia, minority religious groups, especially Muslims, still experience frightening hostility. There is also indirect discrimination that hurts people whose days of rest, religious obligations or clothing are different from the majority.

Religious discrimination laws would be an important message to such groups that they are valued members of our community, and that their rights matter.
The PAC supported the principle of religious discrimination legislation that would work as a protecting ‘shield’ and not an attacking ‘sword’. The problem was that the particular Bill went beyond this, to privilege religious views ahead of other human rights.

Much of the debate in Parliament centered on a section designed to protect statements of religious belief from other anti-discrimination legislation, as long as the statements are not malicious, threatening, intimidating, harassing or inciting hatred or violence. The problem was, less extreme statements of religious belief might still breach other anti-discrimination laws, and could be hurtfully humiliating, insulting and denigrating to others. The PAC argued that statements of belief did not need to override other people’s rights not to be discriminated against. Our reasoning was that greater harm will be experienced by the person being discriminated against, whereas the person who wants to make a statement of belief could witness to their faith in a non-discriminatory way. We can simply engage with respect for the dignity of others.

How far can religious institutions, for doctrinal reasons, discriminate against students or staff? The proposed Bill entrenched the ability of religious schools to expel students and dismiss staff on the grounds of their religious beliefs (including beliefs about sexuality and gender identity). The PAC opposed this for students and most staff. It would be too severe a punishment if people changed their religious views, which would not be uncommon, especially amongst students.

Much of the fuss in Parliament was over the amendments to the existing Sex Discrimination Act, which currently allows religious schools to expel students or dismiss staff on the grounds of their sexuality if this is in accordance with their doctrines or beliefs. To get the religious discrimination laws across the line, the government included, as part of the package, changes to the Sex Discrimination Act to prevent students from being discriminated against, but only on the grounds of their sexuality.

Five Government MPs crossed the floor to pass a further amendment to protect transgender students too. This led to the government shelving the Bills for the time being. Sadly, preserving the right to discriminate against transgender students seemed more important to the government than prohibiting religious discrimination.

What Australia needs is a bi-partisan approach to protecting all human rights, or at least all rights to be free from discrimination. We need to build a society that takes care to ensure people are not marginalised or mistreated for who they are.

This is best handled in a coordinated manner, in which the needs for dignity and care for all are respected, and no rights are privileged over others.

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