Australia Debates Religious Freedom Bill

Scott Morrison, prime minister of Australia (Wikimedia Commons photo)

By Robyn Douglass, Correspondent 

Australia’s national parliament begins each session with two gestures of faith: an acknowledgment of the nation’s traditional owners, and prayers “humbly beseeching” God to “direct and prosper our deliberations to the advancement of thy glory and the true welfare of the people of Australia.” 

You’d think the nation had a soul. 

But while faith is more often a matter of private practice than public discussion, the prime minister has introduced new legislation to protect people from discrimination against religion. 

It’s the third draft, and the work of some years, issuing from the bitter debates on same-sex marriage and an inquiry that gathered thousands of submissions from people of all faiths and none, as TLC reported in 2018. 

Australia protects people from discrimination because of their sex, age, race, or disability, but there is no national protection from discrimination on the basis of people’s religion — some states have laws of this nature, some don’t. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes no secret of his Christian faith. His Pentecostal church would be regarded by many Anglicans as demonstrative to the point of noisy. 

Introducing the bill, Morrison spoke from the heart. 

“Human beings are more than our physical selves. As human beings, we are also soul and spirit. We are also importantly what we believe,” he told the nation. 

“The protection of what we choose to believe in a free society is essential to our freedoms.” 

Describing faith as a matter of personal choice, Morrison said it was “not about the state or the marketplace. In our democracy we rightly divide church from state … but we do not separate faith from community.” 

He paid tribute to the countless people of faith who had established “schools, hospitals, food kitchens, shelters, [and] started services to meet almost every human need you can imagine. 

“We need institutions like the Salvos [Salvation Army], Jewish Care, Lifeline, Muslim Women Australia, Mission Australia, and countless others offering services large and small,” he said. 

“A Sikh should not be discriminated against because they wear a turban, nor a Maronite because of the cross they wear around their neck, nor a Muslim who keeps a prayer mat in the bottom drawer of their desk at work, nor a Hindu couple who are seeking to rent a property, nor a school seeking to employ someone of their faith … if it is a policy of the school,” he argued. 

The last point goes to the nub of the matter. While schools will not be permitted to discriminate against students for their sex or sexuality, some Christian schools want to maintain their right not to employ gay staff, who do not conform with what the schools believe is a faithful life. 

Religious leaders, including Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel, issued a statement of support for the bill before it had been introduced into parliament. 

They were disappointed that the bill does not allow conscience protection for healthcare professionals, and that employers can still insist on codes of conduct that restrict religious speech outside the workplace. In 2019, a professional footballer who made comments on social media about atheists and gay people going to hell was sacked — and still could be, under the proposed law. 

But the faith leaders welcomed the bill “because it will protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs, and will allow faith-based organizations to act in accordance with their doctrines, tenets, and beliefs without this being disallowed as religious discrimination.” 

In a tweet last week, Archbishop Raffel said he was pleased that there appears to be a “clear recognition from both sides of politics that religious freedom is an important part of our Australian democracy.” He urged “respectful debate and bipartisan support” for the bill. 

But there are Anglicans who are not impressed with the planned bill. 

The Rev. Peter MacLeod-Miller, a priest at St Matthew’s Albury, right on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, has been an outspoken supporter of gay Christians. He has also sounded a warning on this legislation, particularly the fact that church schools will be able to discriminate against gay teachers. 

“It is prioritising religious institutions over the freedoms of religious individuals,” he told The Living Church. 

Fr MacLeod-Miller said legislation made for the whole community ought to apply to every Australian, and it is worrying that the government seems prepared to have a situation where some are more protected than others. 

Social-media frenzies are also responsible for the marginalization that some people of faith feel. “People should not be cancelled or persecuted or vilified because their beliefs are different from someone else’s in a free liberal democratic society such as Australia,” the prime minister said. 

Some feel the Australian government’s planned attempts to force social-media companies to identify trolls, bots, and abusers who hide behind the veil of anonymity might ultimately be more effective protection than religious-discrimination laws. 

Debate on both bills continues. 

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