The Religious Discrimination Bill arrives

After a long wait, the Federal government has released the text of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 which is about to be introduced into the Parliament. There has been no general Federal law dealing with detrimental treatment of Australians on the basis of their religious faith and activities, and this is a welcome development, implementing a recommendation of the Ruddock Review which reported in 2018.

The government previously released two “Exposure Drafts” of the Bill (see some comments on those in previous posts, here, and here.) Having promised prior to the last election that he would advance this law, Prime Minister Morrison will now introduce it into the House of Representatives. If passed by the House, the Bill will then need to approved by the Senate, where it seems likely to be referred to (yet another) committee before being voted on there, probably sometime in the New Year.

In this post I will aim to provide an overview of the Bill, and also to indicate briefly where it differs from previous drafts.

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Victorian Religious Exceptions Amendment Bill introduced

As previously foreshadowed (see my analysis of the proposals when first announced here) the Victorian government has introduced a Bill into the Parliament of that State seriously limiting the religious freedom of religious bodies and individual Victorian citizens. The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 (Vic) was introduced into the Legislative Assembly on October 27 and the second reading was moved on October 28. The Bill is a serious attack on the religious freedom of Victorians, especially to send their children to faith-based schools reflecting a religious world-view.

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New academic journal on law and religion in Australia

It is exciting to see the start of a new academic journal on law and religion in Australia: the Australian Journal of Law and Religion. The editorial team includes previous guest “Law and Religion Australia” blogger Dr Alex Deagon from QUT, and Dr Jeremy Patrick from USQ. From the website:

The Australian Journal of Law and Religion is the first peer-reviewed, scholarly journal in the antipodes to focus on the interactions of faith and the legal system. Every issue features articles, short essays, and book reviews from a diverse array of scholars from across the spectrum of religions and ideologies. It is published with the support of the Law, Religion, and Heritage Research Program Team of the University of Southern Queensland.

The first issue will not be published until 2022, but this looks like a terrific initiative to support scholarly examination of this important area.

Victorian proposals to further limit religious freedom rights

The Victorian government has recently announced proposals to further limit important protections for religious freedom currently applicable to religious persons, bodies and schools in that State. The recent proposals have been put forward as dealing with the problem of religious schools sacking gay teachers, or expelling gay students: see this comment from The Age: “Religious schools in Victoria to lose the right to sack LGBTQ staff” (Sept 16, 2021). However, the details of the proposals hinted at in the recent “Fact Sheet” provided by the government go much further than this. In short, if the government pursues these proposals, they will

  • remove the right of any religious schools to make staffing decisions based on whether or not the staff member agrees with fundamental moral values being taught by the school, by narrowing the grounds on which a staff member can be hired or fired to “religious belief” alone (and it seems from the way this is worded in the document, to mean that this will apply even to someone hired as a “religious studies” teacher!) This rule will also apply to any organisation “providing services funded by the Victorian Government”.
  • impose on all schools and “religious bodies” (however that is defined) a rule that any staffing decision based on religious beliefs must be justified by demonstrating that the “inherent requirements” of the position require such a criterion; the implication being that a secular Victorian tribunal or court will have to determine whether such requirements are applicable by examining the religious beliefs of the body or school for themselves;
  • remove completely the current right enjoyed by private Victorian citizens under s 84 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 not to be sued for discrimination where they can demonstrate that their action was “reasonably necessary… to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of their religion”.

I described these as “further” limits on religious freedom because the Victorian Parliament has recently enacted provisions concerned “conversion practices” which will substantially interfere with the rights of religious persons to teach the doctrines of their faith. (These provisions are due to commence in February 2022). Victoria, despite being one of only a few jurisdictions in Australia to have enacted apparently broad protections for religious freedom in its Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, s 14, continues to treat this right as one which can be downplayed and minimised.

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Weddings and Kirpans- indirect religious discrimination in NSW

While Sikh weddings will often feature the symbolic dagger known as the “kirpan”, that is not the connection I am writing about. In NSW at the moment both weddings in general, and kirpans worn by school students, have featured in debates about religious freedom. For weddings, those committed to religious beliefs are deeply concerned that all weddings are banned under COVID-19 provisions. In relation to the kirpan, I have written previously about a ban on these items applied to school students and the problems that raised for observant Sikh students. Both of these issues provide an example of what is called “indirect discrimination” on the basis of religion. The kirpan ban seems to have recently been sensibly modified to take into account concerns of the Sikh community. I argue here that the wedding ban should be approached in a similar way, and the deep-seated concerns of believers in NSW met by adjusting the current rules to allow the small number of people most directly involved to gather for weddings.

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Can employees be ordered to support controversial views in email signatures?

This question has been raised by a report that a Victorian council has required its employees to add a graphic to their email addresses featuring a “rainbow flag”. One employee is reported as saying:

the rainbow flag can look like moral support for identity politics or sexualities prohibited by many religions in this multicultural area

This is an important issue which will present challenges to employees of organisations which are determined to make political statements on various causes. To what extent can an employee in such an organisation decline to provide their own support for the stance taken by their employer, where the “core business” of the organisation is not involved? In this post I want to consider religious freedom protections that might apply in the reported circumstances.

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Religious freedom and knives in school

A debate over the extent of religious freedom laws has arisen in NSW after an incident at a school where one student was stabbed by another, who was wielding a “kirpan”, a religious symbol in the form of a dagger worn by Sikhs. Politicians have expressed surprise that knives are allowed at schools at all, and there has been an announcement on Tuesday 18 May that from Wednesday 19 May there will be a ban implemented. It seems worthwhile to discuss the legal issues.

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NSW Parliamentary report supports religious discrimination law

The recently released NSW Parliamentary Report of the Joint Select Committee on the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 (handed down on 31 March 2021) has recommended that the NSW government introduce amendments to make it unlawful in NSW to discriminate on irrelevant grounds relating to religious belief or activity. The proposals supported by the Committee are a good idea and I think their recommendations (with a couple of minor reservations noted below) should be implemented.

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Collision of laws: the impact of Commonwealth law on the Victorian CSP law

The Victorian  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 (Vic) (which I will call the “CSP” law for short) passed the Upper House on 4 Feb, 2021. As I write it seems not to have yet received the Royal Assent and become an “Act” but that will no doubt happen soon. The government has signalled that the legislation will not come into operation for another 12 months (see the final sentence in this article.)

My previous posts (see here for the most recent) have expressed grave concerns about the effect of the law on religious freedom and specifically on the freedom of parents and others to encourage children to live in accordance with Biblical standards of sexual behaviour. It is astonishing that the Bill was rushed through Parliament in the face of concerns also being expressed by the Law Institute of Victoria, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). (See this excellent post from Murray Campbell noting these issues.) 

There are, it seems, very few legal avenues available to challenge the many problems created by this law. But in this post I want to suggest one which may be available- where the CSP Law purports to take away rights of religious freedom granted by the Commonwealth Parliament.

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A Religious Discrimination Bill in NSW

The NSW Parliament is currently considering a Private Member’s Bill which would make religious discrimination unlawful. The Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, introduced by the Hon Mark Latham, is being considered at hearings before a Joint Select Committee. I have previously linked, here, to a submission on the Bill provided by Freedom for Faith. The Bill has been subject to serious criticism in an article on The Conversation and in the Sydney Morning Herald. Here I want to provide some response to those critiques, and to suggest that the Bill, while not perfect, is worth supporting and is a good idea.

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