Religious Discrimination bill under threat from religious leaders

Australia’s religious discrimination bill took a temporary step backwards late last week as religious leaders threatened to withdraw their support for the proposed bill.

Attorney General, Christian Porter intended to introduce the bill to the Federal Parliament before Christmas.

But the powerful religious groups say the bill, in its current form, will actually diminish the religious freedom of faith groups.

Among the groups making representation include:

  • Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney,
  • Anglican Diocese of Sydney,
  • Executive Council of Australian Jewry,
  • Australian National Imams Council,
  • Greek Orthodox Church in Australia,
  • Seventh-day Adventist,
  • Baptist leaders,
  • Presbyterian leaders,
  • Australian Christian Lobby, and
  • Christian Schools Australia.

The government released a draft bill in August, however, Porter now intends to redraft the bill and introduce early 2020.

One issue at stake is the definition of a religious body.

Under the proposed legislation, religious bodies are given special protections to hire and dismiss staff on the basis of religious belief.

Churches, religious schools and registered charities all qualify as religious bodies, but not groups that engage primarily in “commercial activities” reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

The SMH reports religious leaders remain “deeply concerned” about the lack of protections for religious bodies engaged in commercial activities.

It reports the leaders say there will be “very serious unintended consequences” for the operation of faith-based charities, such as Vinnies’ op-shops and Christian campsites.

The religious leaders say the issue is mission-critical for many faith-based organisations which exist to further a religious purpose,” the letter says. “On the current drafting, it would be an offence, for example, for a Christian campsite (if it operates “commercially”) to advertise for Christian staff to run the campsite.”

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher is welcoming the postponement.

“The Archbishop of Sydney has said (of the bill’s delay) that he is pleased that the government has listened to the concerns of people of faith and welcomes the opportunity for further consultation and looks forward to seeing the second exposure draft very soon,” a spokesperson for Fisher said.

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison said the Australian Government takes seriously the issue of discrimination against Australians for their religious beliefs and will proceed on the basis of good faith.

“We made a commitment to Australians to address this issue at the last election and we are keeping faith with that commitment in a calm and considered process.

While religious groups are keen for stronger religious freedoms in Australia, their view is not shared by other community groups.

The proposed bill has also met with strong criticism from Equality Australia, who say the draft proposed law will open the door to discriminate against LGBTTIQ+ people.



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