Liberals announce new rights to religious bigotry

The Liberals’ new religious discrimination bill is designed to undermine the victory for marriage equality and promote the right to spread bigotry. A draft bill was finally released at the end of August.

It would roll back some existing state-based anti-discrimination laws in Tasmania and Victoria.

And it would allow employees to express “statements of religious belief” outside work that are bigoted or discriminatory, unless their employer was able to prove the statements caused it “unjustified financial hardship” or constituted harassment or vilification.

This is designed to assist people like Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia for breaching its code of conduct. The measures apply to companies with annual revenue of over $50 million.

Law Council President Arthur Moses warned this protection is not limited to bigotry against LGBTI people, but would also apply to racial hatred.

The bill also grants doctors and medical staff greater ability to object to delivering certain kinds of healthcare. Conduct rules in medical services and pharmacies would only be justified if they were designed to avoid an “unjustifiable adverse impact” on patients. Melbourne GP Ruth McNair, who works in LGBTI health, told The Age there was already a significant problem for LGBTI people accessing “standard healthcare” due to discrimination.

It would also establish a “Religious Freedom Commissioner” to campaign on the issue.

All this goes far beyond a simple ban on discrimination against people because of their faith.

The government says the measures are justified by citing an anti-discrimination complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, over a booklet on Church teaching on marriage. But the booklet did not simply oppose equal marriage but offensively claimed that same sex parenting “messes with kids” and that same-sex partners aren’t whole people. And the anti-discrimination claim over it was dropped after mediation.

There is simply no need for the new law—apart from sending a message to the religious right that they can continue to spread bigotry. The government is still preparing further legislation addressing exemptions from discrimination law for religious institutions and schools—and what rights they should have to expel LGBTI students and sack teachers. The Law Reform Commission is due to finalise its review on these issues in April next year.

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