Religious protection laws an election issue

The lingering question over the adequacy of religious protection laws in Australia will remain unanswered until at least this May after Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared it would be a significant issue at the next federal election.

According to The Australian, Mr Morrison said he would campaign for a religious discrimination act at the yet to be announced poll to ensure religious prejudice is treated as seriously as racial or sexual discrimination.

The election must be held by 18 May 2019.

A religious discrimination act was the key recommendation of the highly anticipated review into religious freedoms, by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.

Mr Morrison said he was accepting Mr Ruddock’s recommendation because religion and faith were central to the lives of millions of Australians, their families and their communities.

“Australia is a secular democracy but that does not mean that Australians are a godless people,” Mr Morrison said. “Australians have a diversity of faith and religious backgrounds and these should all be respected ... Protecting freedom of belief is central to the liberty of each and every Australian.”

Draft legislation is expected to be released early this year and will include a provision for the creation of a “freedom of religion” commissioner to sit within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said he supported the introduction of a religious discrimination act because society had changed.

“Australians used to be ‘live and let live’ on religious matters. Our neighbours could have a different religion to us,” he said.

“We gave each other the space to be different. But lately there has been a hard-edged secularism that wants to stamp out religion from public life. So that’s why I think there are calls today for religious discrimination legislation.”

The Law Council of Australia, however, has urged the Federal Government not to rush the introduction of a new bill until it effectively balances the competing rights of freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.

The Federal Government has also referred the issue of gay students within religious schools to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review, after the Federal Opposition introduced a bill last November to repeal the exemptions for religious schools in section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act.

The Opposition has claimed the exemptions in the act allowed teachers and students to be legally discriminated against.

In response, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference spokesperson on religious freedom, Archbishop Peter Comensoli, said Catholic schools did not use these exemptions to expel students for their sexual orientation or gender identity but rather to safeguard teaching in the Christian tradition.

Catholic Schools NSW Chief Executive Officer, Dallas McInerney said Catholic education had never sought the right to expel students or refuse to hire staff based on their sexuality.

“We did not seek concessions to discriminate against students or teachers based on their sexuality, gender identity or relationship status,” Mr McInerney said.

“All that we expect is that, once employed or enrolled, people within a Catholic school community adhere to the school’s mission and values.”

In an article published in Eureka Street, Fr Frank Brennan, a member of the Religious Freedom Review chaired by Philip Ruddock, says he agrees with a Labor bill introduced by Penny Wong in the Senate late last year, designed to prevent “discrimination” in religious schools – but on one proviso.

“I agree with Penny Wong that religious schools should not be able to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Fr Brennan said.

“But I think religious schools should remain free to teach their doctrine respectfully and reasonably…and the law should make that perfectly clear.” At the time of publication the bill was still being considered by a parliamentary committee, therefore, its fate was yet to be determined.

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