Religious Discrimination Bill ‘Trojan Horse for hate’
The Religious Discrimination Bill now has the support of the opposition following another controversial amendment, making it that much more likely to pass through the House of Representatives and into the Senate. As it gets closer to becoming law, legal groups have once again called for it to be rejected in its entirety.
In an attempt to garner support for the Religious Discrimination Bill, the latest round of amendments propose striking out existing laws that allow schools to exclude staff and students on the basis of sexual orientation. However, pending a proposal by Labor, this amendment does not extend to transgender people in schools.
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Many government MPs have threatened to cross the bench and vote against the bill for its ability to discriminate against many vulnerable groups. This meant that the federal government needed the support from Labor or the crossbench to pass the bill through the lower house, which the former has indicated it may do.
The plan to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure schools cannot expel students and teachers was labelled “completely unacceptable” by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). Policy manager Alastair Lawrie said on Wednesday, 9 February, that there is “no legal or moral justification” for abandoning transgender and gender diverse students under the proposed changes in the legislation.
“The bill does not deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise to protect LGBT children from discrimination by only preventing the expulsion of LGB students,” Mr Lawrie said and clarified that the government’s proposal will still allow discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual students in “countless other damaging ways”, including exclusion from any activities or suspension from school.
“There is nothing in the government’s amendments which change our overall view, which is that the Religious Discrimination Bill promotes rather than prohibits discrimination and should be rejected,” Mr Lawrie commented.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Jewell Hancock Employment Lawyers principal Trent Hancock said the bill is a “federal endorsement” for religious bodies to discriminate against an employee but “no teacher should be denied a job and no student should be denied an education simply because of their gender identity or their sexuality”.
Further, he argued that the Religious Discrimination Bill is a “redundant piece of legislation”, supported by a 2018 expert panel into the bill that found Australians “already enjoy a high degree of religious freedoms” and discrimination on the basis of faith is already prohibited in many jurisdictions “in one way or another”.
“Even just based on our own anecdotal evidence from the firm, we see a much higher level of discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality than we do on the basis of religion, at least in the context of employment disputes,” Mr Hancock said.
Referring to the serious concerns raised by eminent legal bodies and practitioners, Mr Hancock warned that Australia would have more schools like Citipointe Christian College “testing the extent of the laws in a way that means vulnerable people losing their jobs and vulnerable people being actively discriminated against”.
Mr Hancock said the government’s willingness to overlook these concerns “calls into question the legitimacy of the legislation” and the motive behind it.
“Given the way this bill has been drafted and given the timing around the introduction of the bill and some of the deficiencies that have been identified to date, it would be reasonable for somebody to conclude that perhaps it’s been introduced for political purposes rather than to address any genuine social need,” Mr Hancock said.
Appearing before the House of Representative’s debate on the bill, Greens MP Adam Bandt mirrored this, telling Parliament the bill is the price of passing marriage equality and an attempt to “come back and unwind some of those protections by increasing discrimination against people that obtained equality in the first place”.
“The bill is a Trojan Horse for hate,” Mr Bandt said. “It’s not just the government that is backing it, but the opposition might as well. This bill will mean more discrimination, not less. This bill does harm. The debate around this bill is already doing harm.”
Mr Bandt said that in the government’s “dying days”, the bill is its attempt to “fight a culture war because they have nothing else in the tank”. As a result, he said the bill had been put forward with the presumption that transgender children are victimising and discriminating against religion, when the “hurt is the other way around”.
Referring to the potential to discriminate against women, Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) said it is “deeply concerned” the new legislation will “override the current and hard fought-for protections that women have under existing state and federal laws”. While it is supportive of protections against religious discrimination, AWL said it does not support the Religious Discrimination Bill in its current form.
“Australian Women Lawyers is particularly concerned that the draft bill would lawfully permit discriminatory statements to be made about women based on religious grounds, including in the workplace. Permitting such statements is likely to feed the cultures that encourage sexual and other gender harassment, at a time when most sectors are working hard to redress these issues,” AWL said in a statement.