Bigotry had a setback on 11 February with the indefinite shelving of the Religious Discrimination Bill. This is to be celebrated.
Religious organisations have for now been denied their “right” to impose their prejudices on others with impunity, despite the House of Representatives passing an amended version of the bill after an all-night sitting of parliament.
It was because of an amendment, which removed the power of religious schools to expel students because of their gender identity, that some of the bill’s most ardent supporters, including the Australian Christian Lobby, ended up withdrawing their support for it. Their dummy-spit revealed the real agenda: to secure state backing for the loony right in the culture wars, a key battleground of which is trans kids’ right to be treated with dignity and respect.
It ended up an embarrassing fiasco for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who personally introduced the bill to parliament last November and who promised at the last election that such laws would be in place before the next election. Any hope the debate would provide a much-needed distraction from the government’s disastrous COVID-19 response and help enthuse the Liberal Party’s conservative base have been unceremoniously dashed.
Instead, Labor is congratulating itself for supporting the amendment, moved by Centre Alliance MP Rebekah Sharkie, and the government’s many opponents are rightly celebrating the bill being dropped. This somewhat obscures the fact that it was because of Labor that the bill came so perilously close to being successful. Even with the amendment, religious organisations would have secured wide-ranging powers to discriminate and have their various prejudices protected and legitimised by the state.
Religious organisations, including hospitals, schools and aged care centres, would have had greater latitude to discriminate legally when hiring staff so long as the religious ethos of the workplace was made public. So public hospitals that are also Catholic, for example, would be able to require that doctors oppose abortion and contraception to be employed there. Or LGBTI people or unmarried mothers could be sacked or not hired, regardless of their suitability for the job.
It also protected expressions of genuinely held religious belief, even if they cause hurt or offence. Which meant that while LGBTI kids might not be able to be expelled from religious schools, they could still be told that their desires are sinful, they are going to hell and could be punished for them with the endorsement of the government. Administrators and teachers could also legally refuse to recognise the names and pronouns of gender-diverse students, and they could be banned from participating fully in sports and other extracurricular activities. This provision could potentially affect many other groups, including women, people with a disability or mental illness and people of minority faiths.
Crucially, this “statements of belief” clause would override existing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. And the special privileges that would be given to religious organisations would be far broader than existing state-based exemptions to anti-discrimination law, both because the bill adopted a much more lenient test to determine when this discrimination is permitted—only requiring that one other person of the same religion could reasonably consider the discrimination to be justified—and because it applies to a much wider range of organisations than other laws, including charities, hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers, disability service providers, camps, conference sites and even some commercial operations. This meant, had the bill been successful, bigots would have had the tacit approval of the state to make demeaning and derogatory comments in almost all areas of public life.
And while it was presented by the government as a measure to protect people of all religious faiths or none, overwhelmingly the key beneficiaries of the measures were the already powerful Christian organisations that employ far more people than other faiths and which are well embedded in the social services, health and education sectors. Indeed, Christian organisations make up a significant proportion of the non-government organisations that today provide an estimated two-thirds of all welfare and social services in Australia. The Catholic Church operates 75 hospitals, (21 of which are public) and more than 500 aged care facilities. In Victoria, 112,000 children—about one in five—attend a Catholic school, while only about 12,000 attend Islamic schools. Minority faiths, which don’t have a comparable network of service providers, therefore couldn’t exercise the discriminatory rights provided for under the bill. They are more likely to have to fight for the right to practise their faith, whether it’s the right to construct mosques or be free to worship without attracting attention from ASIO—issues the bill’s promoters take no apparent interest in.
The shelved bill also would have created a Religious Freedom Commissioner, which was one of several measures aimed at giving religion and religious values more prominence and importance in the state and everyday life. This reflects the Christian right’s broader concern about the waning prominence and influence of religion and by association, traditional values. Religious organisations don’t just want to run a shadow state, they want to be able to use their integration into the state to impose their values and rules on others, and have them legitimised and protected by government.
Despite both major parties being committed to voting for the bill, amended or in its original form, sentiment in Parliament House is not representative of the rest of the country. Polls indicate that more than three-quarters of people oppose the “statements of belief” clause in the bill, and just under two-thirds think it should be against the law for religious schools to expel or exclude LGBTI students. Rallies of mainly young people have been held around the country in opposition to the bill. All this is part of the ongoing legacy of the marriage equality campaign, during which millions of people rallied, campaigned and ultimately voted to make equality law, and who are not willing to stand by while the Christian right fights a rearguard action to undermine that victory.
The bill is dead for now, and it probably won’t rise again. But the highly motivated bigots in the Christian right, and their allies in the Liberal Party, are not about to give up the broader fight, and nor should we.
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