Prime Minister Scott Morrison has informed the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) that his proposed Religious Discrimination Bill would seek to provide in federal anti-discrimination law the same protections for religious belief and activity as other attributes, such as race, age and sex.
In a letter (see below) to RSA president Meredith Doig, Mr Morrison said the new draft of the bill would treat religion “in the same way” as other protected attributes.
Use of this phrasing could signal a shift to dampen expectations of religious lobbyists who have been pushing for new laws to go much further in enshrining religious privileges.
The first two drafts of the bill drew widespread criticism for providing religious people and groups with a ‘sword’ to discriminate instead of protecting them with a ‘shield’ from discrimination.
In recent months, a number of government backbenchers have raised concerns about the proposed legislation going too far.
Dr Doig welcomed the Prime Minister’s letter and said the change in tone was encouraging.
However, she said the RSA – which joined with a number of pro-secular groups for the #DontDivideUs campaign against the initial drafts of the bill – would maintain pressure on the government while awaiting the third draft.
“As we told Liberal MP Dave Sharma recently, we would not be opposed to a law that acts as a shield against discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. But we would not support a law that may be used as a sword to impose religious belief, to inflict harm, or to punish those who abandon or change their religion,” said Dr Doig.
“While religious lobbyists have continued to push for wide-ranging privileges, Australians have overwhelmingly made it clear they would not accept legislation that creates division in our community.
“We hope the Prime Minister now sticks to his word of not privileging the rights of the religious ahead of the rights of everyone else.”
In his letter, Mr Morrison argued freedom of religion is a right that should be protected but so should other human rights.
“The right to freedom of religion is one right among many others, and must co-exist within the broad suit of human rights, including the right to equality and non-discrimination,” he said.
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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
Image: G20 Argentina (CC, Flickr)
Letter from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 15 September 2021
Dear Dr Doig
Thank you for writing to me regarding freedom of religion in Australia.
The Australian Government believes that all Australians, regardless of their religious belief, should be able to fully participate in our society within the framework of Australian law.
The Government recognises an opportunity to further enhance and better protect freedom of religion.
Draft legislation has been prepared to implement recommendations from the May 2018 report of the Expert Panel to the Religious Freedom Review, including a Religious Discrimination Bill.
The Government conducted extensive consultations in 2019 and 2020 on the proposed legislation, including roundtable discussions and meetings with interested stakeholders.
About 13,000 submissions were received.
The right to freedom of religion is one right among many others, and must co-exist within the broad suit of human rights, including the right to equality and non-discrimination.
The Religious Discrimination Bill will ensure that religious belief and activity is protected in the same way as other attributes covered by anti-discrimination law, including race, age, disability and sex.
The Attorney General is working to progress the Religious Discrimination Bill and associated legislative package so that it can be introduced to Parliament.
Thank you for writing.