The debate over religious discrimination is back, so why do we keep hearing about religious “freedom”?


The debate over religious discrimination in Australia is back.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash plans to bring the last version of the bill in parliament during the last two sitting weeks of the year, starting next week.

We are still to see the most recent bill, but the bill look for prohibit discrimination “on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life”, including employment and education.

Once again, religious groups and LGBT + advocates are raising what appears to be competing concerns on the impact of legislation on their rights and freedoms.

It should be noted that the federal bill is pointedly about religious discrimination, but in public discourse we are discussing “”religious freedom”. This confusion is not helped by their labeling on the website of the prosecution under the name of “bills on religious freedom”.

Why the amalgamation between these terms?

What is at stake in the new bill depends very much on how discrimination is conceptualized – whether to overcome it, or to exercise it – and by whom it is claimed.

Context matters

This confusion between discrimination and freedom in the contemporary Australian context has been in the making for about ten years. In 2011 he was a change from religious freedom to the right not to be discriminated against because of one’s religion, to the “right” to discriminate against others in the name of one’s religion.

Read more: New research shows religious discrimination is on the rise around the world, including Australia

Context is crucial here. Around this time, the campaign for marriage equality began to gain traction in public debate. For example, it was the year of GetUp’s “It’s Time” video in favor of same-sex marriage. went viral, with more than two million views in five days.

Get up! released a music video in 2011 promoting marriage equality. It quickly went viral.

It is also the year that the Australian Human Rights Commission published its first report on LGBT + discrimination, observation

significant gaps in legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and sex and / or gender identity at state and territory level and almost no protection at federal level.

A backlash after the postal vote

But as the rights of LGBT + people gained prominence, fears that religious freedoms might be infringed also increased. While the legislation for marriage equality in 2017 was a milestone for the LGBT + community, there has been a backlash from some religious groups.

Following the postal vote, then treasurer Scott Morrison noted:

There are nearly five million Australians who voted no in this [postal] survey who now accept the fact that they are in the minority. This was not the case before […] They fear that their broader opinions and beliefs will be […] therefore threatened.

To appease opponents of same-sex marriage, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has set up a Review of religious freedom. The review, run by Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, “did not accept the argument, advanced by some, that religious freedom is in imminent danger”. But he nonetheless recommended new legislative protections:

to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s “religious belief or activity”, including that a person has no religious belief.

The Morrison government introduced a religious discrimination bill in the 2019 federal election and sees it as a key electoral commitment.

A (very) heated debate on the bill

The federal government has consulted with the community and experts, but the road has been strewn with pitfalls – with criticism from almost all interested parties (saying the bill went too far or not enough).

The bill has already been the subject of several iterations. Indeed, it was initially supposed to be adopted before the federal elections of May 2019 and an attempt to present it to Parliament during the end of 2019 failed, amid pressure from some religious leaders to strengthen protections for Australians of faith.

The bill on religious discrimination was initially due to be passed before the 2019 elections.
Lukas Coch / AAP

For example, some conservative Christians groups want to be able to retain the “right to discriminate” based on their beliefs. For example, the Presbyterian Church in Queensland is concerning with

if Christian institutions such as schools can [still] affirm a traditional view that God made men and women, gender not being fluid, but corresponding to their biological sex.

Other Christian groups, such as the Christian medical and dental scholarship, want to be able to continue homosexual conversion therapy.

[Religious texts] promote the stability of gender identity in accordance with the chromosomal guideline and would encourage psychological support for confused people […].

A “Folau clause”

Meanwhile, religious groups continue to to augment “freedom of expression” concerns – in part, related to the Israel Folau treatment. In 2019, Folau lost his contract with Rugby Australia for social media posts about LGBT + people. a undisclosed regulation was reached later that year.

Legal expert Patrick Emerton underlines the ongoing conflict this incident raised:

Without a doubt, Folau’s opinions are sincere and his adherence to his conception of good is deep and genuine. But the life of homosexuals and lesbians is also lived with sincerity and authenticity.

At this point, it’s important to stress that Christians and the LGBT + community are not locked into a zero-sum human rights game.

A sign promoting marriage equality outside a United Church church in 2017.
Some religious groups, such as The Uniting Church, have supported marriage equality and are now concerned about the impact of proposed laws on LGBT + people.
James Ross / AAP

There was explicit support of the Christian community for marriage equality, for example. And of course, some LGBT + people are religious.

In addition, the Ruddock panel found “limited evidence that the fears of religious groups expressed during this [marriage equality] debate had taken place in Australia ”.

What is happening now?

Where does that leave debate as it heads to parliament?

Read more: Coalition’s approach to religious discrimination risks being an inconclusive and unnecessary exercise

A strictly worded bill may protect against religious discrimination and uphold the hard-won rights of LGBT + Australians. As the Australian Multicultural Council GLBTIQ Note, they support legislation that prevents discrimination against Australians “on the basis of faith and religion, or for not having those beliefs,” with this caveat:

Any new law should be a simple anti-discrimination bill without conferring the many special privileges and rights provided for in the currently proposed legislation.

Such legislation could ensure that religious Australians – including members of minority religions – have means of protection if they are targets of discrimination.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves whether the bill is about ending discrimination, or maintenance of privilege to act beyond ordinary standards of accountability.


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