Australia: Failed Anti-Religious Discrimination Bill Criticized for Promoting Discrimination

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — A controversial Anti-Religious Discrimination Bill that was strongly supported by conservative Christian groups, an important vote bank for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ruling coalition, failed to pass the lower house of parliament when five government backbenchers crossed the floor to vote against the government, by supporting an amendment to the legislation.

The legislation supposedly an anti-discrimination bill, would have granted religious institutions that run schools, age-care homes, accommodation for the needy and disability services, the right to discriminate against people who do not share their faith. The bill also requires religious bodies to outline their beliefs and explain how their policies will be enforced.

Though it applies to all religious bodies, the fact that it is Christian organizations that run most of these services in Australia, made the law look as if it is legalizing discrimination in favour of Christians, which has been a fact of life before the wave of multiculturalism and anti-discrimination acts came into force in the past four decades.

In January, giving evidence to a federal parliamentary committee on human rights investigating the bill, Law Council of Australia representative Katherine Eastman said the council was concerned that some aspects of the bill did not meet Australia’s international human rights obligations. “The bill does more than simply build defences into existing discrimination laws, it preferences rights based on religion over and above the equality rights that sit under the suite of other discrimination laws,” she said.

Australia’s LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual and Transgender) community, which has grown in influence in the public service and the media in Australia over the past 2-3 decades, has been up in arms over this bill, seeing it as an attack on them.

“These policies are going to give the religious organisations the power to be more blatant, which they cannot (be at the moment). The power to blatantly say, ‘this is the reason you’re not accepted here’. It’s going to (allow them to) weaponise religious scriptures,” Elizabeth Plank, who is in a same-sex marriage told SBS News before the bill was presented to parliament.

Morrison is a known Pentecostal Christian, and these growing conservative Christian groups, who are also staunchly opposed to rights granted to the LGBT community, such as the legalization of same sex marriage through a postal referendum in 2017, see this bill as an electoral promise made by Morrison to Christian community to garner their votes at the 2019 election which he won narrowly with a 1 seat majority in parliament.

“Multiculturalism has made it possible for any minority group to express their faith or views openly, and even attack our faith. But when we express ours it is not acceptable. The anti-discrimination laws discriminate against the majority,” Allan Walsh, a Pentecostal Christian complained to IDN.

After a marathon sitting of parliament in Canberra that lasted until the early hours of the morning on February 10 the government decided to indefinitely shelve the legislation, rather than forwarding it to the Senate (where the government holds no majority) for a vote with the amendment passed in the lower house. The amendment would have protected school children (and teachers) from discrimination because of their LGBT beliefs or practices.

ABC’s political reporter Jake Evans noted “some religious groups have been adamant they do not support the transgender student protections passed alongside it (the bill)” and have asked the government to formally dump the legislation.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) argues that removing exemptions that allowed schools to discriminate against transgender students “completely undermined” the bill. “[The exemptions] have enabled faith-based schools to teach their religion and conduct their schools according to their faith values,” ACL director Wendy Francis told ABC. “With the amendments so damaging to religious freedom, the government should immediately withdraw the bills.”

It is not only conservative Christians, many migrant families of other faiths such as Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are also concerned about some proposals to introduce uni-sex toilets, transgender “boys” in girls-only schools and curriculum that is promoting such issues that is in the LGBT agenda, prevalent in some western countries currently, which are flagged to be introduced in Australia.

“I don’t want my little girl to go to boys’ toilets at school nor taught that it is natural to marry from the same sex,” a parent from a Buddhist migrant family from Asia told IDN.

Meanwhile, in early February, education ministers from all state governments agreed to amend the history curriculum taught in Australian schools by elevating the study of Western and Christian heritage in history lessons. It will be designed for students to understand the value of this heritage to the democracy and freedoms Australians enjoy today, and also learning of Aboriginal (First Nation) histories and cultures would also be improved. But it is not clear whether the Aboriginal view of history as a country “stolen from them” would be taught to students.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge is reported to have told the meeting that the history curriculum created such a miserable impression of the nation’s past that Australians would be reluctant to defend it.

Former CNN and Al Jazeera journalist and currently an international affairs analyst at the ABC, Stan Grant, who is of Aboriginal descent argues that Australia is not alone when it comes to questions of God. “Throughout the world faith is a political fault line. Indeed, for liberal democracies it is an existential challenge” he argues, noting that it raises questions of who belongs (here) and what is the future of pluralism? Can democracy still effectively govern over diversity?

Grant believes that the past week’s debate about religious freedom has tested the limits of tolerance, freedom, respect, and rights in Australia.

“The political right senses an opportunity to expose the left as being weak on faith, calculating it will hurt Labour in multicultural seats, especially in Sydney’s west. They paint the left and the progressive politics of identity at its more extreme as dismissive, indeed hostile, to religion. Social progressives frame the deeply held beliefs of conservative people of faith on abortion, LGBTIQ issues and euthanasia as discrimination and intolerance rather than matters of faith and conviction,” noted Grant in a commentary published on ABC’s website.

Earlier this month, the senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs handed down its 150-page inquiry report into the Religious Discrimination Bill and it pointed out that, some clauses in the bill could be contested by the legal community. One clause in particular, that provides space necessary for “people of religious faith to practice their faith while also protecting social cohesion and fundamental rights of others” could be constitutionally problematic.

As Grant points out: “Conservatives, sometimes seem more eager to plant the flag of their faith in the defence of intolerance or exclusion than the teachings of love, forgiveness, grace and humility.” He has also given examples from other countries such as India, Myanmar and Hungary. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 February 2022]

Photo: An old Church at the LGBT stronghold of Paddington in Sydney. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

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