Revisions announced to Australia religious freedom bill 

Canberra, Australia, Dec 12, 2019 / 12:47 am (CNA).- Following religious groups’ criticism of an Australian bill intended to protect religious freedom, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter have released a second version that appears to address some concerns.

“This is a bill for all Australians,” Morrison told reporters Dec. 9, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. “Australia is a country of respect and of tolerance,” he said, adding that diversity of belief is “a key part of who we are as a country.”

The ruling Liberal-National Coalition government wants to make religious belief and activity a protected class, like race or sex. It also wants to ensure that groups which reject same-sex marriage are not stripped of their charitable status.

The bill would establish a religious freedom commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission; and amend existing laws regarding religious freedom, including marriage and charities law, and objection clauses in anti-discrimination law.

The Catholic bishops of Australia had criticized the first version of the bill, saying it did not go far enough to protect religious freedom. They called for protections for religious schools to be expanded to religious health groups, welfare agencies, and other entities, as well as religious-run publishing houses, retreat centers and other non-profit entities. There was a danger that Catholic medical facilities, for instance, would not be able to expect employees to provide care according to a Catholic ethos, they said.

The Australian bishops stressed the importance of recognizing religious liberty not only as freedom of worship, but also as freedom to live out one’s faith through charitable works, education, and public debate.

To an extent, the changes to the bill addressed their concerns.

The new bill would protect religious institutions from discrimination claims when their actions are taken “to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherence of their faith.”

The new version would allow religious hospitals, aged care facilities and accommodation providers like retirement homes to make staff decisions on the basis of religion in order to preserve a “religious ethos.”

In response to the Sydney Anglican Church’s complaint that the original bill could force it to rent its campsites to Satanists, the revised draft exempts religious camps and conference centers, provided they publish a policy explaining their ethos and rules.

Its revisions now make “associates of religious individuals” protected from discrimination. For example, a woman who faced discrimination for marrying a Muslim man would have legal recourse.

The bill bars direct discrimination, in which a person is treated less favorably based on religion, and also indirect discrimination, in which an apparently neutral condition would in effect disadvantage people based on religion, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reports.

There are still questions over whether the provision would penalize companies that set mandatory meetings late on Fridays, which would indirectly discriminate against observant Jews who leave early to observe the Sabbath.

The new version stipulates that certification bodies like those that admit doctors and lawyers to practice cannot adopt policies like social media codes of conduct restricting statements of belief unless they are an “absolute requirement.”

The bill’s provisions also aim to stop employers from policing employees’ expression of their religious views in their spare time.

The proposed legislation follows controversy over the treatment of Israel Folau, a devout Christian and professional rugby star, who was fired by Rugby Australia in May 2019 after a post on Instagram. The post listed “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” above the statement “Hell awaits you.”

In his reaction to the firing, Folau cited the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, saying he was expressing a Biblical idea, CNN reports.

“The Christian faith has always been a part of my life and I believe it is my duty as a Christian to share God’s word,” he said in May. “Upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club or country.”

The Australian bill says that statements of religious belief do not constitute discrimination under commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination law. The previous version included local council law as well.

The bill would not protect religious statements that are “malicious, would harass, vilify or incite hatred or violence against a person or group or which advocate for the commission of a serious criminal offense.” The bill now defines “vilify” as meaning “to incite hatred or violence.”

The proposed legislation still allows doctors, pharmacists and certain other medical practitioners like nurses and midwives to refuse to perform abortions or to dispense some drugs like the morning-after pill. A previous version covered conscience protections for many more licensed health care providers, including dentists.

Consultations on the first version of the bill showed Australians to be “generally supportive of the proposition that discrimination based on a person’s religion is not acceptable and should be prohibited,” the Australian Attorney General’s Department said Dec. 9.

“However, as with any topical issue before the Parliament, there is a wide range of views on the legislation, and this diversity of opinion was reflected in the responses,” the attorney general’s office continued. It described the proposal as a response to the December 2018 release of the Report of the Religious Freedom Review, which concluded “there is an opportunity to further protect and better promote freedom of religion under Australian law and in the community.”

Christian Schools Australia’s director of public policy, Mark Spencer, said the new draft shows the government “listened to the concerns of faith communities” and is making progress to produce a good bill.

Critics, however, have voiced various objections to giving religious bodies standing to sue for discrimination; to hindering employers from implementing diversity and inclusion policies and from prohibiting offensive speech; and to protecting religious-based beliefs more than political-based beliefs. The bill’s lack of definition of religion, critics said, could exclude indigenous spirituality while protecting “esoteric or emerging” religions.

Secular Party of Australia president John Perkins objected on the grounds the legislation “gives privileges to religious groups.”

“Secularism ought to allow people to engage in their faith but not insofar as it infringes on other people,” he told the Daily Mail of Australia. Perkins objected that the bill could allow religious-run retirement homes to evict same-sex couples.

Anna Brown, chief executive of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Australia, said the draft creates “double standards in the law, allowing religious organizations the ability to discriminate against others.”

“The statements of belief clauses immunize people who intimidate others from being held to account through anti-discrimination laws, and by their relevant professional bodies,” she said, according to The Guardian.

The bill is open for comment until Jan. 31. The government plans to introduce it to Parliament in early 2020.

 

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