What is the Religious Discrimination Bill and how will it affect you?

As federal parliament returns this week, the controversial Religious Discrimination Bill is dominating debate in the house.

The bill has caused division in the prime minister's own party and caused LGBTIQ+ advocates and minority religious leaders to speak out against it.

Back in 2019, the Morrison government pledged a stand-alone law which would outlaw religious discrimination.

In November 2021, after the bill was redrafted and clauses were dropped, Scott Morrison personally introduced the legislation into parliament.

What is the Religious Discrimination Bill?

General view of the chamber during a division on allowing debate on an integrity commission in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, November 25, 2021.
Parliament resumed on Tuesday and the Religious Discrimination Bill is being debated. Source: AAP

The bill, which is part of a package of legislation, would seek to protect people from discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity.

It bans discrimination on the basis of a person's religious belief or activity in relation to employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and accommodation.

The new laws would also see a Religious Discrimination Commissioner appointed.

Constitutional law expert explains the bill's potential impact

Dr Luke Beck, Associate Professor of Constitutional Law and leading scholar in the field of separation of religion, government and religious freedom under the Australian Constitution said the bill has two key parts.

While the bill strives to protect people from discrimination based on their religion, advocates and politicians have raised concerned others in the community will be discriminated against.

The bill is also designed to override state laws that limit when religious schools can preference hiring people of the same faith.

What anti-discrimination laws do we have now?

As Scott Morrison said in parliament in November last year, Australia does not have any stand-alone laws protecting against religious discrimination.

"There is no stand-alone legislation to protect people of religion, or faith, against discrimination, or indeed for those who choose not to have a faith or religion," Dr Beck said.

Dr Beck said religious discrimination is unlawful in every state and territory in Australia, with the exception of NSW and South Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during House of Representatives Question Time at Parliament House. He introduced the Religious Discrimination Bill.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced the Religious Discrimination Bill last year. Source: AAP

What will the bill mean for Australians

Dr Beck said this bill has the power to impact everyone and will allow for organisations to engage in religiously-motivated discrimination, including those who subscribe to a religion, including Christians.

"The Bill would allow a religious school to discriminate against a Hindu maths teacher or a Muslim cleaner, or a divorced history teacher, or a gay security guard," Dr Beck said.

The Bill also gives people the right to make religiously motivated 'statements of belief' like a male boss saying to a female employee, 'women should not hold leadership positions', or a doctor saying to a patient, 'disability is a punishment for sin'.Dr Luke Beck

In his own submission, Dr Beck said the bill was "inconsistent with international human rights law".

He explained to Yahoo News Australia international human rights law is clear and states religious freedom can't be used to justify interfering with the rights of others, or discriminate against others.

"Yet that's exactly what parts of this bill do. Some parts of the Bill are designed to facilitate discrimination," he said.

The bill also overrides every anti-discrimination law in Australia, Dr Beck said.

"It overrides all state and territory anti-discrimination laws. And it overrides every federal anti-discrimination law, including the Racial Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act," he said.

Who opposes the bill?

Many people have come out in opposition of the controversial bill, including Olympian and LGBTIQ+ advocate Ian Thorpe, Equality Australia and the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

Mr Thorpe called for the bill to be abandoned after proposed amendments would still allow religious schools the right to expel transgender students, with only gay students offered protection from such expulsion.

"It's being considered that trans is not classified in that category as well … when you look at some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in this country, this is a group of people that we should be protecting," he said.

"It becomes state-sanctioned discrimination to gain rights for one group of people, whilst excluding another group of people."

The decision by the government to preclude transgender and gender diverse students from protection was labelled as "abhorrent" and "cowardly" by critics in the media.

Pictured is Olympic Champion Ian Thorpe speaking to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, about the religious discrimination bill
Olympic Champion Ian Thorpe spoke out against the Religious Discrimination Bill. Source: AAP

Equality Australia says while the bill is meant to protect people from religious discrimination, it "threatens to undermine inclusive workplaces, schools and access to services like healthcare without judgement".

Amnesty International Australia has also called for the bill to be scrapped and the ALA said the bill was "fundamentally flawed", and "piecemeal amendments" were not going to fix it.

“In its current form the bill effectively legislates bigotry, by enabling religious belief to be used as a cloak for sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices,” the ALA said.

Beyond Blue also raised concerns in its submission, saying the bill might jeopardise efforts to reduce the rates of mental health in communities which are already disproportionately affected.

Surinder Jain from the Hindu Council said the bill could affect those who belong to a minority religion, raising concerns of people losing jobs due to being part of the "wrong religion".

Supporters and members of the LGBTQI+ community protest against Citipointe Christian College during a protest rally in King George Square in Brisbane, Friday, February 4, 2022. Brisbane's Citipointe Christian College has revoked student gender and sexuality contracts less than a week after parents were sent the controversial documents.
Concerns have been raised for the LGBTQI+ community if the bill is passed. Source: AAP

Who is in favour of the bill?

Several religious groups were in support of the bill.

The Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli said the bill wasn't "perfect" but said it would "provide basic human rights protections for Australians of all faiths to express their beliefs".

He urged Catholics to have their say about the legislation and "pray for the passage of strong religious discrimination legislation".

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference welcomed the bill in its submission to parliament. The Australian Christian Lobby supported the bill "subject to some minor amendment".

Liberal MP Angie Bell indicated she would now support the bill, having previously said she would not vote with her government colleagues without amendments.

Two cross-party parliamentary committees — one looking at human rights, and another scrutinising legal and constitutional affairs — back the religious discrimination bill, but with caveats and changes.

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