The Government releases a draft Religious Discrimination Bill

August 29, 2019 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The Morrison Government has delivered on its commitment to legislate to prevent discrimination on the basis of religion, releasing a draft Religious Discrimination Bill through Attorney-General Christian Porter at Sydney’s The Great Synagogue.

Attorney-General Christian Porter releases the Bill at the Great Synagogue Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

As well as a major media presence, the audience of more than 100 people included Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist clergy, lay leaders of faith communities, educators and representatives of human rights groups.

Welcoming the gathering, the synagogue’s Chief Rabbi, Benjamin Elton, noted that Jews had had a happy history in Australia, but must remain vigilant.

“We are conscious of the fortunate position of our community, and we want to do all we can to support other faith communities, whether larger than ours or smaller so that their rights and freedoms are also protected”.

“At the same time, what we must bear in mind, is that our freedoms do not diminish the freedoms of others. We share a common society, made up of those with faith and those without faith. Each person and each community must be given the space and the opportunity to flourish in their own way. There is no reason that my freedom should mean that someone else is less free; no reason if we approach this issue thoughtfully and generously.”

Following an address by co-CEO of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry Peter Wertheim, the Attorney-General said the draft Bill would form the basis of extensive consultation over the coming weeks and he expected a final draft Bill to be presented to Federal Parliament in October.

He said: “The draft Bill I have released today reflects the election commitment to present a Bill which reflects the structure of existing anti-discrimination legislation.

Australia has a strong anti-discrimination framework with specific protections for people against discrimination on the basis of their age, sex, race and disability.

This draft Bill released today extends those protections to provide protection for people against discrimination on the basis of their religion or religious belief or lack thereof.

  • The Bill would make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. The Bill does not create a positive right to freedom of religion.”
  • The Attorney-General said the package released today comprised three Bills:
  • The Religious Discrimination Bill, which provides comprehensive protection against discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity and establishes a new office of Freedom of Religion Commissioner. This Bill implements recommendations 15 and 19 of the Ruddock Review.
  • The Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments Bill) 2019 which makes consequential amendments to existing Commonwealth legislation to support the introduction of the Religious Discrimination Bill. This Bill implements recommendations 3, 15 and 19 of the Ruddock Review.

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion Bill) 2019 which amends the Charities Act 2013 and Marriage Act 1961 to provide certainty to charities and religious education institutions. This Bill implements recommendations 3, 4 and 12 of the Ruddock Review.

The Attorney-General said the Religious Discrimination Bill was the result of extensive consultation.

“Whilst there will always be competing views on issues such as this, the government considers the draft Bill presented today strikes the right balance in the interests of all Australians,” the Attorney- General said.

“Consultation has already been undertaken through my office and the office of the Prime Minister with a range of stakeholder groups, including religious organisations.

Further consultation with a wide range of stakeholders will now follow the release of the Bill and I look forward to working constructively with interested parties in settling a final Bill over the coming weeks. The first of these consultations will take place next week.

I expect the Bills can be introduced in October and considered by both the House and Senate before the end of the calendar year, allowing time for a Senate inquiry.”

The Attorney-General said the Australian Law Reform Commission process of inquiring into religious exemptions to other discrimination laws across Australia was continuing. The ALRC Review covers recommendations 1 and 5-8 of the Ruddock Review.

The ALRC inquiry is designed to ensure that existing legislative exemptions to discrimination based on a person’s identity are redrafted or removed, while also protecting the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos,” the Attorney-General said.

The ALRC is due to report next year. What the Bill I am releasing today aims to deliver was rightly described by Anglican Public Affairs Commission chairwoman, Carolyn Tan, recently as being a ‘shield’ against discrimination, and not a ‘sword’.

The laws will protect people from being discriminated against, but will not give them a licence to discriminate against other people, or engage in harassing or vilifying speech.”

Peter Wertheim and Christian Porter

In his introduction to the Attorney-General, ECAJ co-CEO Peter Wertheim noted that it has been 15 years since the Commonwealth last legislated to create a new protected attribute against discrimination.

He said: “The documents released by the government are exposure drafts of the legislation, which invite public comment and consultation. Consultations will begin in Melbourne on Wednesday September 4, and in Sydney the following day.

The proposal to prohibit discrimination on the basis of religious belief or affiliation potentially affects all Australians, whether they are among the majority who profess a religious affiliation or belief, or the 30% minority who, according to the last Census, say they have no religious belief.

We are all affected because freedom of religion, conscience and thought has been, and no doubt will remain, fundamental to our way of life, and to our being a free society”.

This is no mere matter of abstract political theory. Defining the limits of religious freedom, and striking a balance between that freedom and others, has an impact on the freedom of people of faith or of no faith to express their views. It also affects the use of facilities owned by faith-based institutions, the enrolment and employment practices of faith-based schools, the designation of organisations as charities for tax purposes and many other questions.”

Wertheim noted that whilst many representatives of faith communities have recently expressed concern about the gradual erosion of the general standing of religion in Australian society, and hence of religious freedom, they have not advocated introducing any kind of Bill of Rights for religion.

“Instead, we seek legislation that will stipulate that an act that might otherwise be characterised as discriminatory does not constitute discrimination by a person of faith or by a faith-based organisation if the act is reasonably appropriate and adapted to protect the right to freedom of religion of the person, or the right of the faith-based organisation to act in accordance with its ethos.”

In addressing the reason for the timing of the new legislation, ECAJ President Anton Block observed that “no society stands still” and that “the latitude that was once accorded to religious institutions and people of faith to live out their beliefs and their ethos can no longer be taken for granted, and is in fact increasingly being challenged”.

He commended the government for its efforts in producing the draft legislation which will make it unlawful to treat anyone less favourably simply because of their religious faith or absence of faith.

“I am sure all of the faith communities represented here today will now carefully study the Government’s Exposure Draft and provide constructive feedback.”

However, he also noted that the report of the Australian Law Reform Commission concerning the exemptions for religious institutions in current anti-discrimination legislation has been delayed until next year.

“This means that, for the time being, the community will not be able to consider both sets of measures as a package”.

He thanked the Attorney General and the government for its work thus far.

The draft Bills are available at https://ag.gov.au/Consultations/Pages/religious-freedom-bills.aspx

Submissions on the Bills close on 2 October 2019

Comments

One Response to “The Government releases a draft Religious Discrimination Bill”
  1. Adrian Jackson says:

    Over 30% of Australians stated on the census they are no religion/Atheist/Agnostic and this percentage is growing every 5 year census. In a few decades the no religion clique may be over 50% of Australian.

    In my inner Melbourne suburb all 5 churches, except one, have closed. There are no temples, mosques or synagogues either. Taxpayer funds should not go to any religion, except to religious schools for general education only, as the parents are taxpayers too.

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