Originally published in The Canberra Times on September 7, 2019

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally Published in The Canberra Times, 07 September 2019]

Australia has a government in search of an agenda and the religious discrimination bill is a poorly drafted solution in search of a problem.

Following the passage of the income tax cuts package, the only policy discussed in any detail by the Coalition during the election campaign, the Morrison government was left with a rather obvious policy vacuum to fill. And nature abhors a vacuum. The government has so far: prioritised additional drought relief; planned to repeal the Medevac laws allowing refugees to access appropriate medical care; pulled the already rejected idea to test welfare recipients for drugs out of the bottom drawer; and soon Parliament will debate religious discrimination laws.

We can only hope these laws will be more effective at addressing freedom of religion than the company and income tax cuts, passed over successive years, have been at stimulating economic growth. But that is unlikely to be the case because this is an incredibly complex and difficult issue on which the both the Coalition and public is divided. Hell, I’m even divided in my own opinions.

The public has every reason to distrust the motives of the Coalition government on these issues.

 Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives at St Paul’s Anglican Church for an Ecumenical Service to commemorate the commencement of Parliament for 2019. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

In the first place, the Ruddock review into religious freedom was a bone thrown to appease the religious conservatives within the Coalition after they lost the equal marriage debate fair and square.

Former Coalition attorney-general George Brandis – then the highest law officer in the land – talked about the “right to be a bigot”. Hardly the most encouraging frame for a human rights discussion, if you’ve ever copped bigotry yourself.

You might recall that this time last year, an earnest Prime Minister Scott Morrison was on the hustings in the Wentworth byelection promising to legislate to prevent religious schools from expelling kids for being gay or lesbian. Many Australians were shocked to learn religious schools could even do this in the first place. They can sack teachers for being LGBTIQ+ too. Religious schools have been exempt from federal anti-discrimination laws in this manner for many years, but this fact was only brought to widespread attention after the Ruddock review was leaked during the byelection campaign.

Initially, the Prime Minister wanted to protect the status quo, telling 3AW that “religious schools should be able to run their schools based on their religious principles”. But that didn’t wash with the public and so a few days later he changed his mind. “I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group,” Morrison said. Though he didn’t go as far as to extend this consideration to gay teachers, the Prime Minister nevertheless promised to change the law for kids. But since then, the Prime Minister has allowed the legislation to protect LGBTIQ+ kids from religious discrimination to languish.

So, we can forgive the LGBTIQ+ community for being sceptical that the Morrison government is looking out for their best interests.

Religious minorities have reason to worry too. It was just a few years ago that Nationals MP George Christensen was calling for a ban on the burqa. His motion was narrowly defeated by the Nationals Conference, but it demonstrates the divisions within the Coalition rather neatly. Has anyone told George Christensen these laws won’t just be protecting Christians like Israel Folau from religious discrimination, they’ll be protecting those of Islamic, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Falun Gong faith too?

It was, again, George Christensen and then Liberal senator Cory Bernardi who campaigned against halal certification so hard it forced then agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce to push back – not to defend the religious freedoms of Muslims, but to defend beef exports to Islamic countries.

There’s no evidence to suggest any kind of major threat to religious freedom in Australia, although Antisemitism, Islamophobia and other bigotry are all too common. But there’s no doubt there is a gap in our laws when it comes to protection for freedom of religion, along with many other freedoms.

Australia has many conservative warriors for freedom of religion and speech, but most of them abhor the idea of any kind of bill or charter of rights that would enshrine these freedoms in any meaningful way.

The government is not proposing to enshrine any positive rights to freedom of religion because, according to Dean of Law George Williams, as a secular nation that would “demand equal recognition for other rights…and so religious freedom cannot be prioritised over freedom of speech or of the press, nor over other interests that are equally important to democracy”.

The Australia Federal Police raids on media organisations and individual journalists demonstrates the government has no appetite to enshrine freedom of the press any time soon.

And while many have championed these discrimination laws because they are worried about the freedom of speech and freedom of religion for Israel Folau, the government is only legislating the latter, not the former.

Perhaps that’s because the government is quite content to quash freedom of speech for tens of thousands of public servants, whose rights to speech have been curtailed by the High Court in a recent decision about what they can, or can’t, post on social media.

On the one hand, I find Israel Folau’s social media comments offensive and potentially harmful to same-sex attracted kids in particular. I have approximately zero sympathy for Folau. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing with the Institute of Public Affairs, which asked “whether we want to have a country in which codes of conduct for employees purport to govern such a wide range of speech”. I don’t want that.

But how does Rugby Australia protect gay footballers from homophobia in their workplace? Does it only matter when they start losing sponsors? Why is $50 million in annual revenue the arbitrary figure at which businesses must prove “unjustifiable hardship” in order to limit religious expression lawfully? And does that mean freedom of religion has a price?

As an atheist, I’m terrified of Australia moving away from secularism. I absolutely want to protect everyone’s right to worship whatever faith they like. I want turbans and yarmulkes and hijabs in my parliament and my community. I don’t want to see burqas banned.

But I want religious freedoms to stop where they start impinging on my freedom to love who I want and to make decisions about my own body. I don’t want my tax dollars funding religious discrimination in schools. Lawful or not, it is morally wrong. I am worried about the rights of older gay, lesbian and trans people in aged care facilities run by religious charities. I am worried when Equality Australia warns the bill “will enshrine ‘religious exceptionalism’ by giving new privileges to people of faith, while overriding existing protections from discrimination for others”. I am worried when the Law Council warns the bill could legalise race hate speech.

Let’s hope that when Parliament debates this issue, they are thinking about discrimination purportedly because of religion, just as much as discrimination against religion. I don’t quite believe that’s how the debate will unfold, but I suppose that’s where faith comes in.

  • Ebony Bennett is the deputy director at independent think-tank the Australia Institute
  • Twitter: @ebony_bennett

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