Submission: On the Religious Discrimination bill, by Stella Thomas

Stella Thomas / 03 October 2019

Stella Thomas is an RSA member from South Australia. A parent who has long advocated freedom from religion for her school-age children, Stella is a model active citizen: engaged, informed, committed to making a difference. Here is her submission to the Attorney-General on the Religious Discrimination bill.

I strongly believe that everyone has a right to their own religious belief or non-belief. And that each individual should have the freedom to practice that religious belief or non-belief to the extent that it does not impose on or harm others and is within the law.

I believe our current laws are sufficient in protecting religious freedom and in fact, our laws already grant greater and unfair privilege to the religious. I do not believe this additional Bill is necessary to further privilege the religious. On many levels, the Bill continually fails to acknowledge the rights of the non-religious. The Bill even seeks to pit larger religions against smaller religions. I believe the Bill is divisive and seeks to identify people religiously, instead of just seeing us as people first. There has certainly been no consideration given to equality for all people.

  • Religious organisations are currently exempt from anti-discrimination laws, and can and do cruelly hire and fire staff according to religious rule and not common decency. There are cases of this happening for the perceived ‘sin’ of pregnancy out of wedlock, and of course, the LGBTI are targeted. Those exemptions should be removed and religious organisations should be subject to the same laws as everyone else.
  • The Bill allows for conscientious objection, this is a concern especially in the area of health. Patients may be receiving treatment from a doctor, only to ‘discover’ too late that their doctor is a conscientious objector. The conscientious objection clause should be removed, or at the very least doctors should be required to advertise upfront that they are religious and object to various procedures.
  • Regarding education, I considered private schools for my children but was told by the private school that our application was not likely to be successful because we were not of their particular religion. I thought that was unethical and it helped cement my decision to send my three children to public schools. However, even in public schools, there’s no protection from proselytising due to the Federal Government implementing a religious agenda by instilling school chaplains in the majority of public schools across Australia. And ‘Religious Instruction’ is also widespread across Australian public schools. Although RI is optional, it is still divisive and exclusionary. Public schools are a shared space and should not be simply handed to the church to gain access to young minds. There are churches, mosques and the like for people to conduct indoctrination as they see fit.
  • Our shared Government should be secular and not privilege the church by way of allowing prayer at the commencement of meetings. This is divisive and exclusionary. We should have an opening pledge to the community that is inclusive and uniting, and perhaps with a moment’s silence in which one can silently pray or think about what they are going to cook for dinner or whatever else they want to think about.
  • The Bill seeks to instil a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’. Again this is a direct attempt at ensuring the religious have greater power over the non-religious. Any proposed Commissioner should be about freedom of thought as well as religion.
  • The Bill fails to mention the protection from coercion for people wishing to change or leave their religion.
  • The Bill seeks to give greater freedom to religious groups to impose on all others, whether that be to publically and excessively evangelise (disturbing the peace in our shared public spaces), or whether that be to further erode compliance with anti-discrimination legislation.
  • The Bill gives religious organisations greater access to public spaces. This is problematic. For example, a public school which has a set of values reflecting equality and compassion (and the health, safety and well being of their students), would be forced to open its hall to religious groups who actively oppose some of those values.
  • The Bill is complex and unclear and risks creating a legal minefield. If the Bill is to go ahead it should be in a simpler form.

This Religious Discrimination Bill is a very unnecessary step towards making Australia a soft theocracy. We should not be implementing this Bill, and we should be doing more to protect the freedom, human rights and equality of every Australian. A secular approach is needed to protect both the religious and non-religious.

All the more reason.