Australia's Religious Discrimination Bill is still not fit for purpose

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Divisions between religious groups and moderate members of the Liberal Party of Australia have seen the government here shelve plans for it's controversial Religious Discrimination Bill.

As the parliament in Australia adjourned for 2021, the government looked like it had achieved the support it needed to see the bill's passage, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreeing to a demand from Liberal moderates that gay students would be protected from discrimination in religious schools.

However, that deal may have jeopardised support from the government's conservative ranks and key religious groups – especially two key Christian organisations in Australia, the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia.

The government is also yet to persuade some of its own MPs to support the legislation, and in the meantime the Opposition is waiting on a joint human rights committee to begin hearings on what is a "complex area of law".

Last Thursday Christian Schools Australia also rejected the deal struck by the Liberal's moderate faction that would have removed an exemption for religious schools from the Sex Discrimination Act on the firing or expulsion of LGBTIQ teachers and students on the basis of their sexual identity and gender.

CSA warned that this change would prevent schools setting "behavioural expectations", thereby preventing them from teaching a biblical viewpoint on marriage and gender.

The Australian Christian Lobby national director of politics, Wendy Francis, told journalists last week that the sex discrimination exemption "protects the teaching and daily operation of faith-based schools".

"Government policy is not made by backroom deals on a separate piece of legislation, without consultation with stakeholders, in particular the faith-based schools about the implications of that," she said.

She then went on to say that the Australian Christian Lobby would not support the religious discrimination bill package if it included the removal of the sex discrimination exemptions.

For those outside Australia, the Religious Discrimination Bill will protect those of religious faith and none in what they believe.

Australia has a Sex Discrimination Act, a Racial Discrimination Act, Disability Discrimination Act and an Age Discrimination Act. There is however no legislation to protect people of religion or faith against discrimination in the workplace or educational settings.

This bill was a 3-year election promise put forward by Scott Morrison prior to the 2019 Federal election.

Because of challenges from within the Liberal coalition ranks and beyond, this bill is not certain to be passed before the next Federal Election due in 2022.

Prime Minister Morrison, who is himself a Pentecostal Christian, introduced this bill to the Federal Parliament on November 25 where he highlighted its importance to him and the significance that it had during the 2019 election.

Labor, who were expected to win that election, ended up losing because they failed to connect with religious groups.

This journey actually began in 2017 when almost 5 million Australians voted against changing the marriage act to allow marriage between people of the same sex.

They were of course outnumbered by the nearly 8 million who voted in favour and so this national survey led to new laws being passed by the parliament at the end of the year.

As a consolation the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised a "religious freedom" review as a way to win back support from religious groups and conservative MPs.

The review recommended new laws against religious discrimination, which led to this election promise by the Morrison government that came to power in the middle of 2018.

Draft bills have been introduced with opposition from both human rights groups and LGBTIQ advocates highlighting how the bills only weakened other protections from discrimination and created a licence to discriminate.

The Morrison bill is now the third draft and the first that it has been introduced to parliament.

Two of the most controversial provisions have been removed - the so-called 'Folau' clause which sought to prevent large employers penalising employees for religious speech, and others that allowed health providers to refuse treatment because of "conscientious objection" based on religious belief.

It also protects against people being rejected for a job or being refused entry to a health facility because of their faith, and it renders 'statements of belief' for religious organisations immune from legal action.

In that sense, much of the bill is largely unremarkable, standard anti-discrimination law, cut and pasted from existing, sex, age and disability discrimination acts.

Yet this law could be misused and it is important that the government is seeking to be as consultative as it possibly can.

The Morrison government does have a mandate for this from the Australian people and it is important for all people - and the social fabric of this country - that there is a law in place by the next Federal Election that protects people of faith.

Ben Kruzins is a Pastor of The Hub Baptist Church in Regional New South Wales Australia. He has written articles in The Canberra Times and The Sydney Morning Herald.