Updated: Mar 12, 2021
By Palwasha. A
What is the Religious Freedom Bill?
Earlier this year, during one of the worst crises our country has ever seen, Scott Morrison’s political party snuck the second draft of a “religious freedom bill” past the public that, had the nation not been in such extreme turmoil with the widespread bushfires, would have made far more headlines than it did.
The bill recommends that religious beliefs and actions be given statutory protections, and claims that though there are currently laws in place to protect religious non-discrimination, they are insufficient. At first glance, the bill appears to protect the rights of religious people in the same way that other anti-discrimination laws protect people based on race, sex, age, etc. However, upon a closer look, it actually proposes something much more sinister, that would impede on the basic rights of many Australians. It works as a cleverly disguised and well-marketed Trojan horse.
What’s Wrong With This Bill?
Most people may not take issue with the inherent purpose of this bill - less discrimination allowed anywhere, for any reason, is a good thing, right? Many of us, myself included, would celebrate the idea of a bill seeking to strengthen laws against discrimination on the basis of religion. The Law Council of Australia recognises that there are definitely opportunities to protect against anti-religious discrimination at a federal level and that we could be doing more to build a foundation of mutual respect for all.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with this bill, and a closer look shows it’s real intention. Though it’s name suggests that it protects religious people’s freedoms, outrageously, it actually enables discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity, if the body performing the discrimination identifies as “religious”. This bill has the potential to become a way for different kinds of religious organisations to discriminate and still be protected by the law. The current draft of the Religious Freedom Bill effectively undoes several decades of progress on many human rights fronts in Australia.
So How Does The Bill Impede On Our Rights?
Many of us will be familiar with shocking American news headlines, such as where a baker denied service to a gay couple requesting a cake for their wedding, or a doctor refusing to perform an abortion for a single woman, based on their religion. In that case, the US supreme court ruled in favour of the gay couple, but the case raised many red flags about how an ill-formed definition of “religious freedom” can conflict with other valuable civil liberties and non-discrimination laws. This new proposed bill has the capacity to introduce these kinds of stories, and more, into the Australian narrative as well, because in its current form it has the ability to reach into and disrupt every aspect of public life. One of it’s most controversial aspects is the proposed protection of “statements of religious beliefs” even if they are found to breach other federal anti-discrimination laws. These include the following:
The Law Council of Australia documents some well-known Statements of Belief:
That people must not commit adultery (eg. unwed mothers).
That there are only two sexes, for ‘male and female He created them’.
That women who wear men’s clothing and vice versa are detestable to God.
That people with disability should not approach God.
And many other statements of belief that haven’t been touched on by Australian media as much but that are equally threatening and harmful. Basically, as The Law Council of Australia summarises:
“...Contrary to principles of international and domestic law, [the bill] prioritises the protection of freedom of religious expression over other well-recognised human rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or age, or the right to health.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission has recommended that these areas of the bill be amended before it is put up for consideration.
In Summary, This Is Not What We Want
The Religious Freedom Bill is increasingly becoming “a collection of exemptions for different kinds of religious organisations.” The first exposure draft of this bill sent Australians into a frenzy over it’s unfairness. After this, our government snuck in the same provisions into the second draft, exposing where their true intentions lie with this so-called ‘religious freedom’ bill. They have shown that their purpose is clearly not to protect against discrimination on the basis of religion but to allow hatred to filter into many aspects of our public life in more pronounced ways, under the guise of the “religious beliefs” of a very (already powerful) few.
Some news outlets and the ACT govt has said that the bill will create “religious privilege” but that’s oversimplifying, and incorrect. It will actually just further and broaden the scope of the privilege already held by certain groups, and make the protection of that privilege a matter of law. It is for this reason that this current proposed religious freedom bill will do more harm than good and must be rejected. Passing no bill is better than passing this incredibly flawed one. We need to work towards a bill that properly protects the religious beliefs of all individuals without infringing on the rights of vulnerable groups in our communities, on a basis of mutual respect.
If you want to become more informed about this bill, click the link below.
Lead Editor: Lamisa H.
Law Council of Australia. 2019.Religious Freedom Bills. [online] Available at: <https://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/docs/05f00464-68e9-e911-9400-005056be13b5/3695%20-%20Religious%20Discrimination%20Bills.pdf.> [Accessed 20 April 2020].
Australian Human Rights Commission. 2020. Religious Freedom Bills Second Exposure Draft [online] Available at: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/legal/submission/religious-freedom-bills-second-exposure-draft> [Accessed 20 April 2020].