Just over two months ago, I wrote a piece on where the Religious Discrimination bill was likely to go, given the content of the recommendations from the Ruddock review into ‘religious freedom’. As I demonstrated then, most of the likely provisions were to do with the continuation of discrimination by the religious with a little dose of protection of hate speech thrown in1. While I have occasionally had to wade through legislation to provide reports to my employer on topics dealing with my speciality, there are people vastly more qualified to assess the draft Religious Discrimination Bill2. One of these is Alastair Lawrie, a Senior Policy Officer from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, an independent non-profit legal centre. He is also a blogger on LGBTI rights. In his analysis, he examines this legislation by way of hypothetical examples.3
Lawrie’s Example 1: ‘In a mid-sized business, a manager occasionally tells their gay employee that, according to the manager’s religious beliefs, marriage is only between a man and a woman, and therefore the employee’s marriage is both illegitimate and sinful. Under the Religious Discrimination Bill, the employee could not seek protection against discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act, the Fair Work Act or any equivalent state or territory anti-discrimination law. On the other hand, if the CEO tries to stop the manager from making these comments, the manager may claim it is an unreasonable condition and complain to the Human Rights Commission they are being discriminated against due to their religious beliefs. This shows how the Religious Discrimination Bill could limit existing protections for victims of derogatory comments in the workplace, while privileging the people making these comments.’3
Lawrie’s Example 2: ‘The owner of a large pharmacy has a strong diversity and inclusion policy, where all staff are expected to treat colleagues and customers with respect, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity. A junior pharmacist working there holds religious beliefs that gender is binary and solely determined at birth. On that basis, they refuse to provide hormones to transgender or gender diverse customers (although they do provide hormones to cisgender women). The pharmacy may be subject to a complaint by the transgender customer for discrimination on the basis of gender identity under the Sex Discrimination Act. (Although obviously the onus should not be on transgender people to take such action just to access essential health care). The owner attempts to discipline the junior pharmacist for breaching their workplace policy. The employee claims this policy is an unreasonable condition, and makes a complaint of indirect discrimination on the basis of religious belief to the Australian Human Rights Commission. The onus is then on the owner to demonstrate the policy is “necessary to avoid an unjustifiable adverse impact on the[ir] ability… to provide the health service, or the health of any person.” [section 8(6) of the Religious Discrimination Bill]. The owner, who has done everything possible to provide an inclusive health service, is now subject to two different discrimination complaints, with associated costs and stress. This could be a reality under the Religious Discrimination Bill. One final point: this example may seem extreme, but this scenario – a pharmacist refusing to provide hormones to transgender customers – has been raised multiple times by the Human Rights Law Alliance with the obvious implication they want such refusal to be lawful’3.
Lawrie’s Example 3: ‘A student attends the same religious school all the way from grade 1 through to grade 12. In their teenage years, they – like many adolescents – start to question the world around them, including their faith. In a religious studies class, in the middle of grade 12, a teacher asks the student whether they believe in the school’s religion. The student answers honestly that they don’t. Under the Religious Discrimination Bill, that student can now be expelled. That’s because proposed section 10 gives extremely broad powers to religious organisations, including schools, to discriminate against others on the basis of religious belief, or lack of belief. And unlike the anti-discrimination laws of Queensland, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory, the ability of schools to discriminate is not limited to the point of admission or enrolment, but applies throughout the student’s entire education. Some might suggest a school is unlikely to discriminate in this way, but we should remember that [some] schools are more ‘ideologically’ driven than others, so it cannot be ruled out. It’s also entirely foreseeable that a school could use this power to effectively cover-up discrimination against ‘trouble-making’ students on other grounds (e.g. LGBT children). As this example demonstrates, it’s not just women, LGBTI people, single parents, those in de facto relationships or divorced people at risk from the Religious Discrimination Bill – it’s atheists, agnostics and religious minorities too.’3
Lawrie’s Example 4. A single mother drops her child off to a privately run child care centre, conveniently located close to her work. The staff member who greets her holds religious beliefs against children born outside (heterosexual) marriage. They tell the mother, in front of her child, that they pray for the child and fear they will be harmed by being raised in a ‘fatherless’ household. The mother makes a complaint to the centre operator, but they refuse to take any internal action against the employee because of fears (justified or otherwise) the employee will claim it is indirect discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Under section 41 of the Religious Discrimination Bill, the single mother would have no rights to make a discrimination complaint under the Sex Discrimination Act, or any equivalent state or territory anti-discrimination law.’ 3
Lawrie’s Example 5. A mixed-gender couple in a de facto relationship book a romantic weekend away at a Bed & Breakfast in the country. The owner discovers they are not married when they check in. The owner then tells the couple that, according to [his] religious belief, the couple’s relationship is sinful and they shall be judged by god on ‘Judgment Day’. If they don’t repent and change their evil ways, they will spend eternity in hell. While the mood has been killed for their escape, there is very little the couple can do – section 41 of the Religious Discrimination Bill means they cannot make a claim of discrimination under any Commonwealth, State or Territory anti-discrimination law.’3
These demonstrate what I and others4,5 have indicated that the Religious Discrimination Bill is simply to allow discrimination by the religious to continue. It certainly has nothing to do with the freedom to practise any particular religion, but is to entrench religious privilege. The religious want to make sure we all know that they are special and deserve to be exalted above the rest of us, and they will brook no opposition to this. This reeks of desperation, and those for whom religion is all about power, privilege and money, are indeed desperate. They can see the writing on the wall; that their power is waning as religion declines in the western world6 and they will do anything to try to prevent that. In the US, many evangelicals have thrown their lot in with Trump, probably one of the clearest modern examples of one who professes to be a Christian, but is the antithesis of the supposed teachings of Jesus. This is perhaps the clearest indication of their desperation. In Australia, the religious are taking over the Liberal Party, a process that started in the Victorian branch7, is clearly under way in the Western Australian branch8, and is now under way in the New South Wales branch9. The latter is perhaps the reason for the exceptionally bitter opposition within the Liberal Party to decriminalising abortion, which is currently under discussion in NSW. The federal parliamentary Liberal Party is also replete with religious nutters, in the persons of just about anyone you care to name, Pentecostal Morrison being the most obvious. This will not end well for either the Liberal Party nor the power- and money-hungry religious.