RLC Submission: Religious Freedom Reforms

On 2 October 2019, RLC made a submission to the Attorney-General on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019, Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2019.

Background

In late August 2019, the Australian Government released a proposed package of legislative reforms seeking to enhance the statutory protection of the right to religion under Australian law. The Attorney-General has invited submissions on these reforms before their introduction to Parliament.

The reforms:

   1. Create a broad exception for religious bodies doing things that are in accordance with their religious beliefs even if that conduct would otherwise be discriminatory. This essentially privileges a ‘right’ of religious freedom for religious bodies over the rights of individuals to be free from religious and other forms of discrimination.

Example of lawful conduct by a religious body:
A homeless person is refused accommodation at a hostel run by a religious charity because the homeless person practices a different religion.
 

   
  2. Protect individuals who make ‘statements of belief’ in accordance with their religious views, even if those statements are offensive.

Example of a statement that may be protected:  
A woman who works with a male manager who says that her single lifestyle is sexually promiscuous and sinful.

   
   3. Make it more difficult for employers, particularly large employers, to impose codes of conduct that prevent employees from making offensive ‘statements of belief’ both outside work and at work.  

   4. Create an extraordinarily wide range of circumstances in which health practitioners may ‘conscientiously object’ to providing a health service in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Example of lawful conscientious objection: 
A health practitioner that refuses to provide antibiotics to an LGBTIQ+ person with the flu

Summary of Submission

RLC welcomes the introduction of Federal protections against religious discrimination. However, it is our view that the reforms overwhelmingly and disproportionately favour religious bodies, health practitioners and individuals who make offensive public statements at the expense of protections for individuals from all types of discrimination.

RLC is proud to operate within a legal system that protects vulnerable individuals. Current discrimination law mirrors community standards of an inclusive, multicultural, egalitarian society, and are in line with our international law obligations. The reforms will radically undermine those protections and goes too far.

The reforms, if enacted, will create a powerful imbalance in our community that favours and amplifies the voices of individuals within religious beliefs and faith-based organisations to the detriment RLC’s client base, including women, LGBTIQ+ people, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, single parents, people with disability, people who do not hold religious beliefs, racial minorities and children of these groups.

Our submission raises serious concerns with the reforms and makes 12 recommendations, including that:

  • the reforms in their current form should not be passed
  • if religious bodies are allowed to discriminate against individuals, this should only be on a limited basis and only for bodies established for religious purposes. This should not apply to educational institutions such as religious primary, secondary and tertiary schools, or religious bodies that receive Government funding to provide aged care. No religious body should be able to justify discriminatory conduct based on views that are unfounded, uncertain, unsettled and controversial.
  • protection for ‘statements of belief’ should be removed from the Bill, and
  • the health service practitioner conscientious protections provision in the Bill should be removed.

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