‘Sensible and balanced’: Morrison makes the case for religious freedom bill

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‘Sensible and balanced’: Morrison makes the case for religious freedom bill

By Lisa Visentin

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has introduced the contentious Religious Discrimination Bill into the lower house, describing it as a “sensible and balanced bill”.

“This bill is a protection from the few who seek to marginalise and coerce and silence people of faith because they do not share the same view of the world,” Mr Morrison said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison introducing the Religious Discrimination Bill into the House of Representatives on Thursday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison introducing the Religious Discrimination Bill into the House of Representatives on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He said the bill would provide protection for people of faith for the first time at a national level, overcoming inconsistencies in laws across Australia, and filling gaps in NSW and South Australia where there are no religious discrimination protections.

“A Sikh should not be discriminated against because of the turban they wear, nor a Maronite because of the cross around their neck, nor a Muslim employee who keeps that prayer mat in the bottom drawer at the desk at work, nor a Hindu couple who was seeking to rent a property, nor a Jewish school seeking to employ someone of their faith if that faith is their preference and the publicly stated policy of their school,” Mr Morrison said.

In a statement contested by LGBTIQ activists, Mr Morrison said the bill would not enable discrimination against students because they were gay.

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“Nothing in this bill allows for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. You won’t find anything of that nature in this bill. Such discrimination has no place in our education system,” Mr Morrison said.

The bill is dividing opinions in Parliament, as moderate Liberals MPs have called for faster action to protect gay teachers and students. The existing Sex Discrimination Act allows schools to expel students or sack teachers for being gay.

It has been more than three years since Mr Morrison pledged in 2018 to pass laws abolishing the exemption with respect to gay students, following public outcry over the recommendations of Philip Ruddock’s review into religious freedom.

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The government tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission with reviewing the issue and says it will not act on the issue until 12 months after the passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill. This means the commission is unlikely to deliver its findings until 2023.

The bill does not change the law in regard to students but confirms the right of church schools to make someone’s personal faith a factor in hiring decisions, as long as the school makes its policy and doctrine clear in a public statement.

LGBTIQ groups say the bill enables schools to sack teachers who do not conform to religious tenets, including around issues of homosexuality and gender identity, and students could be forced to learn in classrooms where homosexuality is denounced.

“It is already legal for religious schools to fire, expel or otherwise discriminate against LGBT
students and staff. The Religious Discrimination Bill will do nothing to change this, instead
bolstering the ability of religious schools to refuse to hire staff that affirm or support them,” Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said.

Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker did not rule out the possibility that schools could adopt a written policy that prohibited the employment of gay teachers.

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“I think that is something that would depend a great deal upon what that school is prepared to be upfront with the community about,” Ms Stoker told ABC radio.

“I’d suggest there would be very few schools that want to be in a position where they’ve got to say to the community that this is what we believe and we’re not going to hire people, unless they subscribe to a version of beliefs that is very, very strict on that front.”

She sought to draw a distinction between the bill’s intention and the government’s promise to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit the expulsion of gay students, saying they needed to be separately addressed.

“We’ve made the commitment both to bring in the religious discrimination and to deal with those provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act. It’s important we do them well, and that we do them in a way that brings people with us,” Senator Stoker told ABC Radio.

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“But the matters for which colleagues and different parts of the community are seeking to change around the six Discrimination Act remain on the table and they remain matters that we are committed to pursuing. This has to be done in two different pieces.”

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said Labor was prepared to work with the government on the bill, but was concerned the government would rush it through the House of Representatives within days before it had time to consult on its impact.

“Such an approach would effectively require members of the House of Representatives to vote on this complex and important legislation before they have had an opportunity to consider the bill carefully or consult with their constituents, and before the bill has been reviewed by a parliamentary committee,” Mr Dreyfus said.

“Labor supports the extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities - just as Commonwealth law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, religion, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics and sexual orientation.”

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