RLC Submission: Religious Freedom Reforms – second exposure draft

RLC first made submissions to the Religious Freedom Bills (the Bills) consultation on 2 October 2019, detailing a number of our concerns. On 31 January 2020, we made further submissions on the second exposure draft of the Bills.

RLC’s position

While RLC supports the introduction of protections for individuals from religious discrimination and acknowledges improvements to the Bills in the second exposure drafts, it is RLC’s view that, overall, the Bills remain deeply flawed. The Bills continue to favour religious bodies, health practitioners and individuals who make offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating public statements in accordance with their religious views, at the expense of protections for individuals from all types of discrimination. Some of the protections given to religious bodies have been expanded at even further expense to individual protections, ignoring important community concerns raised in the submissions on the first exposure drafts.

Health practitioner conscientious objection

Under the Bill, it will be lawful for a health practitioner to conscientiously object to providing a health service because of a religious belief or activity held by the practitioner unless to do so would cause an unjustifiable adverse impact on the health service or the health of the patient. Changes were made to the Bills so that a health practitioner will not be able to refuse to provide a health service to a particular kind of person, however the amendments as currently drafted do not reflect this intention. It is likely that fundamental health services will be harder to access for particular patient groups.

Example:
A pharmacist may be able to ‘conscientiously object’ to filling a script for a single woman to get the contraceptive pill, but provide the medication to a married woman, on the basis that their religious beliefs support chastity outside marriage and fidelity within it. 

Staffing referencing

The Bills will allow certain religious charities running hospitals, aged care facilities and providing accommodation to make staffing decisions based on the applicant’s faith.

Example:
A public benevolent institution which receives the bulk of its income from government grants could make a decision to hire only Christian staff and preference Christians employed to provide disability support, employment skills training, playgroups, youth and many others. 

Submissions

RLC's submission addresses the issues arising from the changes to the Bills as reflected in the second exposure drafts. Our submission raises serious concerns with the amended Bills and makes 14 recommendations, including:

  1. The definition of religious body should be limited to bodies established for religious purposes that operate places of worship, conduct religious services and ceremonies and provide religious education and instruction.
     
  2. Religious bodies should be required to demonstrate that conduct ‘is in accordance with’ or ‘conforms to’ the doctrine, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a religion, in the same way that is required with other discrimination legislation.
     
  3. The ability of religious bodies other than places of religious worship to ‘preference’, or hire into employment or admit a student into a school, persons of the same religion should be removed.
     
  4. The health practitioner ‘conscientious objector’ protections provisions in the Bill should be removed. 

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