The coalition government’s second drafting of a bill expands powers to discriminate, based on religious belief. Amendments to the divisive Religious Freedom Bill have brought about significant backlash from advocates and individuals across the nation. The amendments expand the powers of religious institutions to hire and fire to “avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherence to their faith.”
This power has been expanded further to include religious charities and care providers, allowing both to avoid claims of discrimination based upon religious belief.
Further protection against claims of discrimination has been welcomed by the Australian Association of Christian Schools (AACS) Executive officer Alithea Westerman said: “the bill is a step towards preserving the choice of parents to educate their children in accordance with their faith. If a student persistently wanted to advocate for and practice Satanism at a Christian school (or a Muslim or Jewish school), the school should be able to use student codes of conduct and discipline to uphold the school’s Christian ethos.”
The bill may also allow for nurses, doctors and pharmacists to refuse treatment based upon religious belief, with potentially deadly consequences for the LGBTQI+ community.
“We already know the health effects that are disproportionally suffered by people of gender and sexually diverse backgrounds, we need to try and address those concerns and not make them worse,” the Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation (ANMF), Annie Butler, said. “This bill potentially stands to worsen the situation for people across the board.”
Further concern for the ANMF lie with the potential legal implications of refusing care. “If an employer decided that they were not going to provide care to a person because of their sexual or gender orientation and directed their employees to do that, that would put a nurse in direct conflict … under the national law that gives them a license to practice,” said Ms Butler. “We’ve been trying to raise that potential conflict to government… you can’t have one law that is acting in opposition to another law.”
Concerns about conflicting policy have also been raised by Anna Brown, CEO of Equality Australia, “It’s worth keeping in mind that LGBITQ people of faith will benefit from legal protections from discrimination on the basis of faith, but we need laws that protect everyone equally rather than licence discrimination against our community,” she said. “We can see a double standard being entrenched, in the sense that harmful religious views will have even more licence to intimidate people and will immunise bigotry.”
Equality Australia launched an online campaign opposing the Religious Discrimination Bill earlier this week, calling for people to write to their MPs explaining why they oppose the bill.
For Bertin Hyunh, Vice President of the Buddha’s Light International Association; Sydney Young Adult Division, and an openly gay man, the separation between faith practice and gender identity must be resolved. “Faith and my queer identity are the two things that define me the most. For me they are two parts of a whole, my Buddhist faith exists to help others… I believe all faiths are there to help people,” he said. “When we talk about freedom, we must also ensure that those who are less fortunate can have freedom from harm and discrimination.”
Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna