Religious Freedom Bill to take away rights of others

At the end of last year, while bushfires roared across NSW and smoke blanketed Sydney, the Prime Minister released the second draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill. At the time, Scott Morrison was accused of using the haze of bushfires to release a flawed and damaging Bill.

While the Bill aims to protect people of faith from discrimination in certain areas of public life, it goes beyond this aim, which is why many find it objectionable.

The Bill:

  • permits someone to be discriminated against on account of their religious belief because such discrimination is in keeping with another person’s religion
  • allows for religious speech to receive special legal protection that is not accorded to speech by the press or other members of the community
  • overrides — and therefore takes away — existing sex, gender identity, marital status, disability, pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination protections, which means that a range of groups (including women, LGBTIQ people, people with a disability and others) will be at a greater risk of discrimination in employment, education and the provision of goods and services.

Significant areas of concern are the application of the proposed Bill in relation to access to health care and education.

In the area of health care, the Bill threatens access to care, and takes away existing discrimination protections (relating to sex, gender identity, race, marital status, disability, pregnancy, breastfeeding and religion).

Health workers such as doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and psychologists will be given greater protection to refuse to offer treatment on religious grounds, including contraception, termination, fertility services or other treatments they consider “sinful”. Such ability to refuse treatment will more adversely affect women.

Women will also be affected when someone makes offensive or uninformed statements about women, based on their religious beliefs. This could affect students, patients and others who access goods and services. Examples include a manager expressing their opinion to a young female employee that he believes that women are commanded to defer to their husbands and stay silent; or a shop owner sharing their view that a child born out of wedlock is the product of sin.

In education, the current Bill takes away the rights of students and staff who are presently protected under anti-discrimination laws when people make offensive, uninformed or damaging statements. Religious schools and other educational institutions will maintain special exemptions allowing them to discriminate, including against LGBTIQ students and staff, meaning students could be expelled due to their sexuality and staff in same-sex marriages can be sacked, while these schools continue to receive public funding.

This was an issue where the government was strongly criticised when releasing the Report of the Religious Freedom Review in 2018. While Morrison promised the public this issue would be addressed, it remains in the current Bill.

Students and staff may not be protected under existing anti-discrimination laws when a teacher or another colleague makes offensive, uninformed or damaging statements based on religious beliefs. While statements that are malicious, likely to harass, threaten, seriously intimidate/vilify, or encourage serious offences will not be protected, it is unclear what type of statements would fall into this category.

As a result of the changes proposed by the Religious Discrimination Bill, all schools, universities and educational institutions, including public schools, will find it harder to prevent staff, students or school community members from making discriminatory comments based on religious belief. Disciplining a person who has expressed such views could raise a religious discrimination complaint, while the person affected by those comments has their discrimination protections taken away.

Federation maintains that discriminatory statements have no place in society, let alone in our schools. The union strongly objects to any forms of sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism.

Federation supports our members in their commitment to the care and wellbeing of all students, and their right to access education free from discrimination.

To ensure that the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill does not pass, Federation encourages members to write to their local federal MP to voice their concern. Additionally, members might like to join local events and rallies (such as the “Protest the Religious Freedom Bill” rally that was held at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday, 8 February) and further engage with campaigns against the Bill, such as those from Equality Australia.

Mel Smith is the Trade Union Training Officer and the officer attached to LGBTIQ issues