A brief update on Parliamentary developments. The Senate debate on the ALP-sponsored Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 took place today. While initially the Bill had been subject to a tight time limit which meant it would have passed today if not actually voted down, at the last minute a Government motion amended this arrangement. The result is as follows:
Debate on this bill will continue at a later date.
It seems that the bill is likely to be referred for consideration to a committee, and the debate will presumably be picked up in the New Year.
There was a similar Bill, however, introduced into the House of Representatives this morning by the Leader of the Opposition. At the moment it is not clear whether this Bill will be debated again this week. More updates will be provided when more is known.
A number of Christian and other religious organisations are deeply concerned about the proposals in the ALP-sponsored private Bill due to be debated in the Senate on Monday Dec 3. As I have discussed in previous comments (here and here) the Bill, which started out as an agreed measure to stop religious schools from expelling gay students on the basis of their “orientation” alone, has a number of other serious consequences for religious freedom, not only for schools but for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious organisations (such as, for example, University student ministries.)
The Bill amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to remove some clauses which have previously provided protection for Christian organisations to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs. It narrows the scope of s 37 of the Act, which has previously exempted religious bodies acting in accordance with their beliefs from being sued for discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. If the Bill in its current form goes through, a Christian student group, for example, may not be legally able to require those who engage in “education” on its behalf (whether at public meetings or in small groups) to teach the Bible’s view on sex or sexual activity. A church may find that its “education” in small groups or in its church services can be challenged as providing “less favourable” treatment to same sex attracted members of the congregation.
As well as my previous comments on this blog, see these other comments from Christian organisations:
I have been asked how concerned citizens can contact their Parliamentary representatives. There is a helpful “contact page” which allows electronic messages to be sent on this Parliament house web page. There is a box to type in your postcode to find out who your local MP is, and the “refine search” menu on this page enables you to identify all the Senators for your State.
Points that could be made include:
- No religious schools want to be able to expel same sex attracted students on the grounds of their sexual orientation alone.
- However, the current ALP-sponsored Bill goes far beyond dealing with this problem, and will seriously reduce the religious freedom of religious schools to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.
- The Bill is also so widely framed that it removes protections for all “religious bodies” in relation to “education”, and this has the potential to make it unlawful for churches, mosques and synagogues to teach the doctrines of their faith to their own members.
- It would be best if legislation was not rushed through at the last minute. Parliament should wait until the Ruddock Report has been released and there is time for careful consideration and consultation before making any amendments in this area.
For those following the debates about proposed amendments to discrimination laws removing religious freedom from faith-based schools, the LNP Government has now tabled a number of amendments to the ALP Bill released earlier this week. While these amendments are a move in the right direction, there are still some serious concerns about their effect on religious schools and their ability to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.
A media outlet here in Australia has released what it says are the 20 recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock. The Report itself was delivered to the Government in May 2018, but has not officially been released. Apparently the Government is planning to release the Report at the same time as announcing its official response.
The main issue which has generated controversy during the last week, in which there was a selective leaking of some of the recommendations, were proposals dealing with the rights of religious schools to take into account the sexual orientation of students in certain areas. The changes proposed were not radical changes to the existing law, but were presented as such when first publicised. In this post I want to briefly set these recommendations in context and offer my preliminary response.
I presented a paper today (linked here) to a seminar at the University where I work, on the topic of “Religious Freedom at Australian Universities”. It explores some of the challenges facing staff and students in this area, and explores some of the ways that religious freedom is currently protected (and where there are gaps in that protection.) I use examples from the policies framed in my local context, but similar policies and legislation would be relevant at most Australian Universities. Others involved in this area may find the paper helpful in outlining issues and options.
Today the Rev the Hon Fred Nile, for the Christian Democrat Party, introduced a Bill to add “religious beliefs or religious activities” into NSW legislation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms) Bill 2018 will add new Parts 3B and 5A into the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) (“ADA”), making it unlawful in various areas to discriminate on the grounds of religion, or to subject religious bodies to a detriment. The proposals will also make it unlawful to penalise someone for holding views on marriage as the union of a man or a woman, or for holding the view that there are only two genders.
The Religious Freedom Review Panel, chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, has invited submissions from all Australians on the protection of religious freedom in Australia. Submissions are being accepted until 14 February 2018. I attach a copy of my submission here: Submission on Religious Freedom Protection for RF Review Expert Panel (with permission of the Review Panel), and one of its attachments: Foster Attachment 1- Religious Freedom in Australia overview 2017. (There is a second attachment which I will release later, as it is a copy of a paper I am presenting at a conference in a couple of weeks.) Those who are interested in the area may find it helpful to see the sort of topics that I think ought to be addressed.