Since a resounding “yes” vote was returned in the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite, senior members of the Liberal government have been plotting new ways to undermine LGBTI rights and restore the confidence of bigots. Shaken by their defeat, and the discrediting of the idea that the right represents the “silent majority” in Australia, the culture warriors in the Liberal Party and Australian Christian Lobby have adopted “religious freedom” as their political cudgel.
It is a cunning counterattack that aims to further entrench the power of religious institutions to discriminate and for religious ideas to have greater influence in non-religious organisations like hospitals and schools—all in the name of protecting a supposedly persecuted minority.
The details of the Religious Freedoms Bill have not been made public, and recent leaks from government sources indicate the government is backing away from some of the most egregious elements that were understood to be in it. Notably the “Folau clause”—intended to limit employers’ right to discipline staff expressing bigoted views—has been ditched after some moderate Liberals threatened to cross the floor and vote against the bill. This opposition was not motivated by a commitment to equality but by concern about the “right” of big business to control and discipline employees.
But for the bill to be passed in any form would be a confidence boost for bigots everywhere and a victory for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who promised to get it passed this year during his 2019 election campaign.
Fortunately, the bill faces some significant hurdles. Most notably, there is no mandate for it. Decades of campaigning against discrimination, increased visibility of and acceptance of non-heteronormative relationships, and changing attitudes towards LGBTI people ensure that the passage of such a bill will be tough work. A YouGov Galaxy Poll commissioned by Equality Australia in 2018 found 79 percent of respondents were opposed to religious schools being able to sack staff in same sex marriages. The figure opposed to religious exemptions climbed to 82 percent when respondents were asked about whether schools should be able to expel LGBTI students.
There has also been public criticism of the bill from the medical community. In response to the most recent leaks, Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said the AMA “continues to hold the same concerns in relation to the religious freedom bill” as it has previously expressed. Dr Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said her organisation remains “concerned about the potential impact of the bill on the delivery and access to some women’s health services, and vulnerable groups’ access to suitable health care or particular health services”.
The 2017 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has further undermined any public support for strengthening the power of religious institutions, especially in what is one of the most secular countries in the world. Ironically, the right’s campaigning about these issues has only drawn attention to the extent to which religious institutions are already exempted from discrimination laws, and how readily they make use of this exemption. Just this year, teacher Karen Pack was fired from Morling College in Sydney after news circulated of her same-sex wedding, while another teacher, Steph Lentz, was sacked from a Christian school in Sydney after coming out.
One factor that does bode well for the government is the Labor Party’s public positioning on the issue. Leader Anthony Albanese has tried to portray himself as a good Catholic, and the party’s internal review of the 2019 federal election erroneously pinned part of the blame for their loss on alienating religious voters. In a move that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who attended a marriage equality demonstration during the six years of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus said Labor are “ready to work with the government on a religious discrimination bill” but “will wait for the government to introduce an action bill into the parliament before determining [the party’s] position”.
The government is not relying on mass support to get this bill passed, but on complacency and Labor’s capitulation. To defeat it, we need more than just passive support expressed through opinion polls. LGBTI groups should be calling protests where they can, and trade unions should mobilise their members against it. We need the kind campaign that won us marriage equality and sent the religious right packing in the first place.
Community Action for Rainbow Rights in Sydney has called a protest against the bill at 1pm on Sunday, 5 December, at Taylor Square, Darlinghurst.