The Religious Freedom Bills are deeply flawed, write Sharmilla Bargon and Finn O'Keefe.
The federal government’s second draft of its proposed package of Religious Freedom Bills ignores a number of important community concerns raised in submissions by Redfern Legal Centre and many others on the first drafts.
Redfern Legal Centre supports legislation to protect individuals from religious discrimination. However, the Religious Freedom Bills are deeply flawed. Today, RLC made a second submission to the Attorney General to convey its concerns about the proposed amendments.
While the Religious Discrimination Bill contains protections for individuals from religious discrimination, it also creates powerful and unprecedented ‘rights’ for religious organisations to discriminate, for individuals to make offensive public statements in accordance with their religious views and for health practitioners to object to providing essential health care on religious grounds.
These ‘rights’ come at the expense of protections for individuals from all types of discrimination, including religious discrimination. The reforms will create a power imbalance in our community that favours and amplifies the voices of individuals with religious beliefs and faith-based organisations to the serious detriment of the broader community.
Debate about the Religious Discrimination Bill is important. If passed in its current form, it will fundamentally change the fabric of Australian society, including most significantly the culture of our workplaces, our ability to obtain employment and our access to health services.
Redfern Legal Centre is worried about the impact that the Religious Discrimination Bill will have on our clients. If you are a woman; in a de facto relationship; divorced; single; LGBTIQ+; have a disability; are agnostic or atheist; or belong to a racial minority, the Bill may have wide-reaching implications on your day-to-day activities.
The Government has suggested that changes to the second draft mean that a health practitioner cannot refuse to provide a health service to a particular kind of person, such as a woman because of her marital status, or an LGBTIQ+ person because of their sexuality. However, this is not what the Bill says.
For example, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent a GP from refusing to prescribe or a pharmacist from refusing to fill a script for unmarried women to get the contraceptive pill (but continue to provide the pill to married women), on the basis that their religious beliefs support chastity outside marriage and fidelity within it.
The Bill will allow certain religious charities running hospitals, aged care facilities and providing accommodation to make staffing decisions based on the applicant’s faith. A public benevolent institution which receives the bulk of its income from government grants could make a decision to hire only Christian staff to provide disability support, employment training, playgroup and youth supervision and many others.
The Bill will make it more difficult for employers to enforce basic standards of civility and maintain safe workplaces for all staff. It will make it harder for students to freely express themselves, or to safely explore their beliefs or identities at school. It will impact the ability of woman and minority groups to participate fully and freely in our society. It will risk further isolating many groups already marginalised in our community.
Redfern Legal Centre is proud to work within a legal system that protects people facing vulnerability and discrimination. Current discrimination laws mirror community standards of an inclusive, multicultural, egalitarian society. These Bills create a new set of standards that threaten to undermine existing laws and the public interest. They go too far and should not be supported.