‘Religious freedom’ is just a guise for bigotry

The federal government’s Religious Freedom Review is not about religious freedom. It is homophobia and transphobia, pure and simple.

A leaked recommendation from the review, obtained by Fairfax Media, suggests that LGBTI staff and students could be fired or expelled from their schools based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status. 

The full report is not yet publicly available. But if the prime minister’s words are anything to go by, there’s little substance to the idea that religious freedom in Australia is under attack. 

Speaking a month ago, Scott Morrison cited the rights of children to perform nativity plays and discuss Easter as areas that might hypothetically need protection. “Just because things haven’t been a problem in the past doesn’t mean they won’t be a problem in the future”, he argued.

Despite their protestations that the report is to government and not by government, Liberal minsters have not distanced themselves from the leaked recommendation. When asked if religious schools should have the right to expel gay students, Morrison merely reiterated that “it is the existing law”. 

Morrison ally and special minister of state Alex Hawke was less equivocal, saying that the recommendation is not controversial, that people expect religious schools to exclude gay students and that “this is a manufactured issue that the left is raising to try and circumvent religious freedom”.

Yet the authors of the leaked report admit that religious freedom is not in “imminent peril” in Australia. Despite the lack of any credible threat, they recommend the federal Sex Discrimination Act be amended to allow religious schools to discriminate. Already in some states religious institutions are exempt from anti-discrimination laws. This change would extend the exemptions nationally. 

The review was launched in late 2017 by the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull as a concession to the Liberal Party’s homophobic right wing, which was livid at having decisively lost the debate on marriage equality. Tens of thousands of people across Australia demonstrated in the largest LGBTI protests in this country’s history. Millions participated in the plebiscite that followed, delivering an emphatic “yes” for marriage equality.

Having lost the plebiscite, the hard right of the Liberal Party went on a war path about religious freedom. But if religious schools were to be consistent in their discrimination, they would have to exclude staff who have been divorced, born out of wedlock or who have had premarital sex. Based on nothing but intuition, I’d say that a significant portion of staff and students who work or study in religious schools are living in sin. Yet only LGBTI staff and students are targeted under this recommendation. That’s because the real agenda is to make bigotry respectable, not to protect anyone’s freedoms.

Religious freedom has been the weapon of choice for anti-equality campaigners, from homophobic bakers to public servants refusing to process same sex marriage licences. In the US, the argument has been used to chip away at anti-discrimination legislation and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling allowing same sex couples to marry.

If you want more evidence that this has nothing to do with religious freedom, look at the treatment Muslims get from the conservative right. Liberal National Party MP George Christensen, one of the champions of the religious freedom review, is also one of the loudest voices calling for the burqa to be banned in public spaces. Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi, the former Liberal senator who launched his own inquiry into halal certification in 2015, continues to call for halal products to be banned.

The leaked recommendations herald yet another homophobic and transphobic attack by the government, and will likely fuel another round of culture wars against the gains won by LGBTI people. 

These gains have been won by a militant LGBTI rights movement that has shifted public attitudes in favour of LGBTI rights. Despite this cultural and political shift, the conservatives know that they can still use homophobia and transphobia to whip up moral panics and galvanise their right wing base.

In one month, we will be celebrating the anniversary of our historic win for marriage equality. A victory won after a 13-year protest campaign that transformed minority support for equality into an overwhelming majority. 

This review attempts to undermine that success and claw back ground that the conservatives have lost. We must defend our victories with the same passion and determination with which we won them.