Following the successful legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia in 2017, hard-right MPs with Australia’s conservative federal government demanded retribution. The Prime Minister of the day, Malcolm Turnbull, mollified them by commissioning an inquiry into the state of religious freedom in Australia. The Religious Freedom Inquiry’s report found there was no threat to religious freedom in the country, though it acknowledged some groups might anticipate future threats.
Most of Australia’s states and territories already include religion as a prohibited ground in anti-discrimination laws, as does the federal workplace legislation.
Nevertheless, the federal government chose to ignore the Inquiry’s findings and proceeded to draft up a federal Religious Discriminationbill. The first version of the bill proved unsatisfactory to the religious conservatives and it was hardened into a second version in early 2020. A third version was finally presented to the federal parliament in February 2022 and ultimately failed.
The failure was largely due to 5 moderate (small “l”) Liberals crossing the floor of the House of Representatives to support a number of amendments to the bill, amendments which were unacceptable to the Prime Minister. When the bill and its amendments were sent to the Senate, the government decided to withdraw what had become, to the government and the bill’s backers, an unacceptable piece of legislation.
RSA’s policy has always been to support the inclusion of ‘religion or belief” as a protected attribute under anti-discrimination law. However the government’s Religious Discrimination bill did more than this; instead of providing a shield against discrimination, it provided a sword for some religious organisations to discriminate against others.
To lobby against this unwelcome, unnecessary and divisive bill, RSA joined with other freethought groups to form a coalition called “DontDivideUs”.
For up-to-date information and further background, see the DontDivideUs website.
2 April 2020
RSA President, Dr Meredith Doig had her Op-ed article, God give us strength: Morrison’s faith is a national problem, appear in The Big Smoke.
27 February 2020
The RSA, along with an alliance of Australian freethought organisations, launched the #DontDivideUs campaign against the Religious Discrimination Bill. RSA Patron Michael Kirby launches the campaign, reminding us that secularism is one of the greatest gifts the British gave Australia: “The secular community ensures there’s a space for everyone: people of all religions and of no religion.”
Michael Kirby’s Op-ed article which appeared (26 February 2020)
Judith Ireland’s article on Michael Kirby (26 February 2020)
Article on the launch of the #DontDivideUs Campaign (27 February 2020)
Michael Kirby’s interview with ABC PM (26 February 2020)
October 2018 RSA Patron Michael Kirby speaking about (at the time) possible new religious freedom laws which he says might isolate and humiliate minorities.
30 January 2020: RSA has made the following submission to the second draft of the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.
The Rationalist Society of Australia is extremely disappointed that the second version of the Exposure Draft of the Religious Discrimination bill is even worse than the first. It is clear the government is not listening to reasonable voices. In our first submission, we made it clear we did not object to a bill that responded to the Ruddock Inquiry’s view that there was room for a federal act that ‘fills the gaps’ in national anti-discrimination laws with respect to religion. After all, religion is already one of the prohibited discrimination grounds in many states and territories, and Australia has an obligation, as signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to protect individuals from discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. However, the first Exposure Draft went much further than this and, far from providing a shield against discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, it handed a sword to religious individuals and organisations to indulge in backward-looking bigotry, essentially placing the religious above and beyond the ordinary laws of the land by allowing them to discriminate. The RSA believes the government is not conducting the consultation process in good faith and we see no point in contributing further to it. In the event a bill is introduced into parliament, the RSA will be engaging with the opposition and crossbench.”
Read Luke Beck’s views on the second draft bill in the Sydney Morning Herald article “Religious discrimination bill gives Australians ‘right to be a bigot’“
12 December, 2019: RSA President Meredith Doig’s proposal “11 ways to fix the much maligned Religious Discrimination bill” is published in TBS. And she discusses the second draft of the bill on ABC Breakfast with Steve Martin.
October 2019: Attorney-General Christian Porter released his first version of a draft Religious Discrimination bill. The RSA responded cautiously, welcoming some aspects of the bill while pointing out its over-reach and deficiencies. Read our submission to the Attorney-General here. RSA board member Luke Beck’s article “The right to be a bigot is hidden in the government’s religious freedom bill” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Religious Discrimination bill
In late August 2019, the federal government released an exposure draft of its Religious Discrimination bill. Soon after, on 4 September, the RSA participated in a consultative session on the bill with Attorney-General Christian Porter.
The RSA is not opposed to a law that acts as a shield against discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, but does not support a law that may be used as a sword to impose religious belief or to punish those who abandon or change their religion.
Our key messages were:
- we welcome the addition to all federal anti-discrimination laws the positive recognition of the indivisibility and universality of all human rights, and the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights; and
- the inclusion of those who do not subscribe to religious belief (including atheists and agnostics) by defining “religious belief or activity” to include “not holding a religious belief”, and
- the recognition in clause 20 that citizens have a right to expect the provision of goods and services free from religious discrimination.
However, the bill does not simply offer a shield against discrimination; it equips religious bodies and religionists with a positive sword that elevates their beliefs and their actions beyond the beliefs and actions of others:
- it gives practically free rein to religious bodies to act as they please
- it protects expressions of religious belief but not other deeply felt moral expressions
- it places a greater value on personal religious beliefs over the duty of professionals to provide lawful healthcare services
- it overrides all other federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, elevating religious belief above all else.
See here for our detailed analysis and what we wrote to MPs and Senators.