By Lisa Zengarini
The Australian government this week has introduced a new Religious Discrimination Bill that would provide extra protections for Australians of all faiths to express their beliefs. The Bill, which was first announced in 2017, was introduced in Parliament on Wednesday 24 November, by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, following a number of compromise changes to previous versions. It will be debated and voted in the House of Representatives next week.
The Bill's provisions
The new legislation aims at ensuring that "statements of belief" are not considered discriminatory, as long as they don't threaten, intimidate, harass, or vilify a person; or would be considered malicious to a "reasonable person". The bill also states that religious bodies can "generally" act in accordance with their faith in certain situations without it being considered discriminatory.
However, it does not contain a controversial provision that had been included in the original draft, which would have protected someone from being sacked for expressing any religious belief. Another provision, which would have allowed medical workers to refuse treatment to people for religious reasons, has also been scrapped.
A positive expression of religious freedom
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has welcomed the compromise text as a “progression towards parity with other anti-discrimination laws in Australia”. Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, chair of the Bishops’ Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement, said it offers “a positive expression of religious freedom”, noting that “discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity is only inconsistently acknowledged and protected against” in Australia.
Not discriminating religious beliefs
“All Australian citizens, regardless of their religious belief or activity, should be able to participate fully in our society. They must be entitled to the equal and effective protection of the law and should not be discriminated against on the basis of their religious belief or activities in public life”, the prelate affirmed.
An acceptable compromise
Noting that Australian Bishops had hoped that the bill would go further in protecting religious freedom, Archbishop Comensoli said that this more limited bill “will still be an important recognition of the rights of people with a religious faith to express religious beliefs and engage in religious activities”.
Freedom to hire people sharing the same values
The prelate also backed the provisions in the bill that protect the ability of religious organizations to hire people who share their faith and values: “We want the freedom to hire people for the sake of our mission, just like other non-faith-based organisations”, he said. “The value of religious organizations to people of faith and wider society is in their religious mission and their ability to embody and pursue that religious mission”, he further remarked. “Operating religious organizations, such as religious schools, according to their mission includes recognizing their ability to hire staff who want to teach and model the vision of the school”.
Need fo bipartisan support
According to Archbishop Comensoli, the bill should therefore attract bipartisan support to ensure an enduring legacy for laws that help prevent discrimination against people because of their religious faith: “Because what is being tabled is a modest and positive proposal for protection from religious discrimination, I hope both houses of Parliament will offer it safe passage without reduction in the Senate”, he said.