New religious discrimination bill will cause damage to Australian society that will be difficult to heal

Australia is not a particularly religious country. Australians have a reputation for being widely ambivalent about the place of religion in their lives and in society.

But while a growing number of people report “no religion” in the census, Australia is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Despite this, legal protections for religious freedom are weak.

If we had a human rights charter, religious freedom would be protected alongside other rights that we are committed to upholding. In the absence of a charter, protecting the rights of individuals becomes more complex than it should be.

However, a bill to protect people from discrimination based on religion should be a law most Australians would welcome, just as we have welcomed, for example, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act.

Our religious diversity is part of what makes Australia a strong and vibrant country. This law should therefore be a statement of how much we value this diversity and our commitment to creating a society where everyone feels safe and valued. What we have had, however, is a toxic debate that has needlessly divided the community.



Read more: Third chance? What has changed in the last bill on religious discrimination?


The Morrison government has released its long-awaited third and final draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill.

It was removed from some of the more controversial clauses, including those that allowed physicians to raise conscientious objection in the delivery of healthcare services, and the so-called “Folau clause” which limited the ability of large organizations to deal with issues related to employees expressing religious beliefs contrary to their values.

However, the bill retained the extreme privilege of “statements of belief” which, if they meet certain conditions (and the bar is set low), may override all relevant state and other anti-government laws. Commonwealth discrimination.

This is of deep concern to anyone who might be accused of “sin” in the name of deeply held beliefs.



Read more: Third chance? What has changed in the last bill on religious discrimination?


This bill began life as a concession to both conservative Christian leaders and pressure groups, and warriors of right-wing culture, in the heated debate over marriage equality.

Born out of a politically constructed dichotomy between religious freedom and equality rights, and written at least in part in response to a handful of high-profile cases (Israel Folau and Julian Porteous), the first two versions pit believers against each other. religious to defenders of equality rights.

The Religious Discrimination Bill was designed in response to groups opposed to marriage equality legislation.
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In the middle were indigenous peoples and people belonging to minority religious groups, who have historically been those who have truly suffered the effects of prejudice, harassment, discrimination, abuse and even religiously discriminatory laws.

The Religious Freedom Review Panel, chaired by Philip Ruddock, was already aware of and affected by the change. He noted “the limited attention given to freedom of religion in more general discussions of diversity, understanding and tolerance” and recommended that the government conduct more research on “the community experience of freedom of religion. “.

A full understanding of religion itself has also been lost in this dead end battle. Religion has been narrowly defined as what divides people (the saved, sinners, and others). At the same time, religious “belief” is widely understood as little more than personal assent to a series of propositions on so-called moral issues, such as sexuality, euthanasia, abortion, identity of gender, marriage and divorce.

The resentment caused by the debate also meant a lost opportunity for a better understanding of religion.
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Another disappearance from the debate on this bill has been the theological diversity within religious traditions, especially Christianity. The Australian Christian Lobby and its allies present themselves as speaking on behalf of all Christians. But the ACL speaks only for a minority of Christians.

ACL statements and media appearances are usually greeted with an avalanche of responses in my social media feeds from committed, secular, and orderly church people eager to state that the ACL does not speak. for them.

This bill effectively protects religious speech and practices defined by religion that are discriminatory and potentially harmful.



Read more: The religious discrimination debate is back, so why do we keep hearing about religious “freedom”?


It serves those who seek to maintain control over people’s bodies.

Churches, like governments and other public institutions, must be open to the challenges of their power. The most recent iteration of the religious freedom discourse (and my research has found three different religious freedom discourse over the past 35 years) presents churches and Christians as a threatened minority. In this story, they are besieged by an increasingly bellicose, even aggressive secularism.

However, churches retain significant political influence, as the history of this bill has demonstrated. They also wield power and social influence as large employers and providers of government-funded community and educational services.

As the Ruddock Report revealed, there is little evidence that Christians are persecuted in Australia. A small number of prominent figures challenged to consider the potentially damaging influence of their speech, and a few high-profile cases in overseas jurisdictions very different from ours, did not justify the overbreadth of the second version. Bill.

The final version of the bill offers protections for people from minority religious groups. He took out the most idiosyncratic and degrading parts of the second exposure draft.

The new bill reinforces the idea that LGBTIQ + people are not like everyone else.
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But it still allows discrimination by religious groups against LGBTIQ + people, women, and people on the basis of their religion. If passed, it will entrench in law the idea that LGBTIQ + people are still not like everyone else, as it is the effect of state-sanctioned discrimination.

The bill will also legitimize the mistake that the rights of LGBTIQ + people are incompatible with religious freedom. He has already succeeded in stalling the ALP.

By freeing the expression of religious beliefs from the responsibility to consider how even “well-meaning” statements of judgment and condemnation can harm people, the divisions this debate has created within the Australian social fabric will be difficult. to heal.


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