The practical effect of the religious freedom bill which Prime Minister Scott Morrison presented to Parliament on Thursday remains unclear but its symbolic power in Australia’s culture wars is undeniable.
For religious conservatives who have lost a number of historic recent battles against progressives on social policy, it promises to turn the tide that has been flowing against them recently.
After it was overwhelmingly supported in a popular vote, the Federal Parliament passed same-sex marriage in 2017. After lagging other states, NSW legalised abortion last year and the Parliament is now debating a bill on assisted dying.
In this climate religious groups feel their views are being ignored. Presenting the bill, Mr Morrison three times referred to “cancel culture” which he says is driving people of faith from the public sphere. “Many people from various religious traditions are concerned about the lack of religious protection against the prevalence of cancel culture in Australian life.”
The Herald agrees with Mr Morrison that it is important to engage in civil debate and that discrimination on religious grounds is abhorrent. People of faith deserve the same respect as the 30 per cent of Australians with no religious beliefs. As Mr Morrison said, “The protection of what we choose to believe in a free society is essential to our freedom. In a liberal democracy, it is like oxygen.”
Yet, Mr Morrison fails to establish that religious discrimination is a significant problem here in Australia. By and large Australia already does guarantee freedom of religion. The constitution specifically bans imposing a state religion. Just ask any of the refugees from countries where real religious bigotry is rife if Australia is a free country. The bill is largely a solution looking for a problem.
Where it will make some difference is in cases where religious groups want more rights to breach anti-discrimination laws, especially in relation to LGBTQI people.
This is a difficult issue because the idea of giving a green light to discrimination justified on religious grounds terrifies LGBTQI people who remember that until only a few decades ago their very existence was illegal.
The draft bill Mr Morrison presented tries to please both sides but will likely end up pleasing neither.
For example, while the bill offers some protection for people making genuine statements of religious belief, employers have convinced the government to exempt cases involving workplace policies, including social media policies. They argued that if their employees were free to make inflammatory statements based on religion it could damage their companies’ public image and cause discord in the workplace.
In other words, the draft bill would probably not stop Rugby Australia from sacking a player who wanted to repeat Israel Folau’s homophobic tweets, even though allowing Folau to speak his mind was the cause celebre that launched the religious freedom movement.
The bill also fails to bring any clarity to the question of when or if religious schools can discriminate against LGBTQI teachers and students. It is inconceivable that discrimination on the basis of sexuality could be permitted under Australian law today.
A group of at least seven Coalition MPs, including the member for Wentworth Dave Sharma, wants the legislation amended to protect LGBTQI students who are pressured or even expelled from religious schools.
The one certainty is that if the bill passes it will result in a lot of litigation by religious groups, LGBTQI groups and perhaps even atheists to test the limits. The Herald is sceptical that it will be an improvement from the current situation.
Moreover, conservatives will be disappointed if they think this can turn the tide in the culture wars. They will still have to compete on equal terms in the battle of ideas which they seem to have been losing in recent years.
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