The Rationalist Society of Australia has urged the new Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, to adopt four key principles to guide the development of a new Religious Discrimination Bill.
RSA president Meredith Doig wrote to Mr Dreyfus earlier this month following recent news reports that suggested the Albanese government would introduce such legislation to the parliament.
In her letter (see the full letter below), Dr Doig outlined key principles the Labor government should adopt in the drafting of a new Religious Discrimination Bill:
- It should be a shield against discrimination and not a sword allowing more discrimination.
- It should provide equal treatment for non-religious people.
- It should respect existing state and territory protections.
- It should ensure that bodies in receipt of public funding must abide by public standards.
Dr Doig told Mr Dreyfus that, while the RSA had been comfortable with the ‘vanilla’ parts of previous bills that mirrored other anti-discrimination legislation, it had lobbied hard against parts of the bill which introduced a level of religious privilege that was neither necessary nor reasonable.
“Since that first draft, successive versions of the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill only got worse. They were rightly rejected by the wider community as deeply divisive,” she said.
Dr Doig said it would be critical for the Albanese government to conduct an inclusive consultation process that gave “fair weight to the voices of non-religious and pro-secular community groups, alongside religious groups”.
“As we now know from the census, the proportion of non-religious in Australian society is growing significantly, and we deserve due recognition,” she said.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photo: Mark Dreyfus (Facebook)
RSA letter to the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, 5 July 2022
I’m writing to you on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), Australia’s oldest freethought organisation, promoting reason and evidence-based policy since 1906.
Firstly, congratulations on your appointment as Attorney-General in the new government! We look forward to working constructively with you and your office.
Today, I’m writing specifically in regards to your plan to introduce a new Religious Discrimination Bill – as reported recently in the Nine newspapers.
I was personally involved in the very first consultation on the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, conducted by Christian Porter in September 2019. While we were comfortable with the ‘vanilla’ parts of the bill which mirrored other anti-discrimination legislation, we lobbied hard against the latter parts of the bill which introduced a level of religious privilege that was neither necessary nor reasonable.
Since that first draft, successive versions of the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill only got worse. They were rightly rejected by the wider community as deeply divisive.
As your government begins work on drafting a new Religious Discrimination bill, we urge you to adopt the following principles:
Principle 1: A shield not a sword
As we have always maintained, we would support a federal Religious Discrimination Bill that protects individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of religion or belief, or lack thereof, in equal manner. Such legislation would provide a ‘shield’ against discrimination and not a ‘sword’ to discriminate.
There should be no expansion of the ability of religious organisations or individuals to engage in discrimination. As Anthony Albanese said in February this year, when introducing religious discrimination protections “we must not diminish protections for other people in our society.”
Principle 2: Equal treatment for non-religious people
Non-religious people should be protected in the same way as religious persons, and all religions (other than cults) should be treated equally. Discriminating against a non-religious person because they are non-religious is just as bad – and bad for the same reasons – as discriminating against a Christian because they are Christian, or discriminating against a Hindu because they are Hindu.
The government and the parliament must also conduct inclusive consultation processes that give fair weight to the voices of non-religious and pro-secular community groups, alongside religious groups. As we now know from the census, the proportion of non-religious in Australian society is growing significantly, and we deserve due recognition.
In the development of its third draft bill, the Morrison government ignored non-religious and pro-secular community groups while giving exclusive and privileged access to religious lobbyists. Further, during two committee inquiries into the draft bill last summer, the parliament again ignored the voices of non-religious Australians. The committees provided religious lobbyists and organisations with a total of 41 opportunities to speak at hearings, while they provided zero opportunities for atheist, humanist, rationalist and pro-secular groups.
Principle 3: Respect existing state and territory protections
State and territory laws already protect their citizens from discrimination and should not be weakened or undermined. The Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bills were entirely unorthodox in their overriding of existing state and territory anti-discrimination protections.
Principle 4: Bodies in receipt of public funding must abide by public standards
As Attorney-General in the Gillard government, you introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, which amended the general exemption for religious bodies provision (section 37) of the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit government-funded aged-care homes operated by religious bodies from engaging in discrimination on the basis of any of the attributes protected by the Sex Discrimination Act in the provision of aged-care services.
This amendment has worked well. Religious aged-care homes have continued to grow and operate. The amendment proves that religious bodies do not need a right to discriminate to operate effectively.
Further amendments are now needed to give full effect to the principle that organisations that operate on public funding should abide by public standards.
Your 2013 amendment should be extended to prohibit religious bodies from engaging in discrimination in the provision of any government-funded service or program. No organisation should be permitted to discriminate against people on the basis of any of the attributes protected by federal anti-discrimination laws when providing government-funded services or programs.
In particular, your 2013 amendment should be extended so that it protects staff engaged to provide government-funded services and programs. This principle already has support within Labor. In 2018, senior Labor members told parliament that religious exemptions in the school context should be removed for both students and staff.
We agree. If it is unacceptable to discriminate against children and those who access government-funded services and programs on these grounds, then it is also unacceptable to discriminate against people staffing those services and programs.
Could you please let us know if you agree with these principles, and if so, whether you will use them when developing any new Religious Discrimination bill.
President, Rationalist Society of Australia