Religious freedom significantly strengthened in Australia

The position of Australian churches, faith-based schools and charities to select staff based on their beliefs has been strengthened by a raft of changes to Prime Minister, Scott Morrison’s religious freedom bill.

The changes came after faith-based organisations, business leaders and LGBTTIQ+ groups were highly critical of the initial draft.

A second draft, Morrison is open to further changes and his government will work with the Labor opposition on amendments ahead of the legislation introduced early in 2020.

Draft 2 was announced on Tuesday by Morrison and Attorney General, Christian Porter.

Powerful religious groups including the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and the Australian National Imams Council all said the initial draft worked counter to the intention and would actually diminish the religious freedom of faith groups.

On the previous draft, it was an offence, for example, for a Christian campsite (if it operates “commercially”) to advertise for Christian staff to run the campsite.

It is understood the Australian Government received almost 6000 submissions on the first draft of the bill, and Porter met with 100 stakeholder groups.

The Government has 11 changes to the initial draft.

“A Catholic school — we want to be utterly clear — could fill a position with a Catholic simply because their preference is it be filled by a Catholic,” Porter said.

He further clarified that religious benevolent institutions such as Vinnies will be included in the definition of “religious bodies”.

Porter said the changes would not “change the operation, the objectives or the overarching structure of the bill” but would “improve a range of very important clauses”.

Association of Independent Schools NSW chief executive Geoff Newcombe said amendments appeared to address the original concern of faith-based schools over their right to preference the employment of teachers of the same faith.

The new draft bill also includes stronger protections for other ­religious groups and individuals, including faith-based hospitals and aged-care facilities, and provides a clearer definition of vilification as “incitement of hatred or violence”.

The bill was welcomed by religious groups, condemned by the Greens and LGBTI groups, and noted by Labor reports The Guardian.

As well as the right for religious institutions to discriminate in favour of staff on the basis of religion, it plans to narrow a controversial proposal to allow medical practitioners to object to treating patients.

The new bill makes it clear “conscientious objection” does not give health workers the right to discriminate against patients based on gender or other characteristics. Explanatory notes accompanying the bill say “an objection must be to a procedure, not a person”.

Mr Morrison said Australians held diverse beliefs and this was “a key part of who we are as a country”.

“This is a bill for all Australians,” he told reporters in Sydney. ”

Australia is a country of respect and of tolerance.”

Public comment on the bill is open until the end of January



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