Submissions to the ‘Religious Freedom’ bill released

The Attorney General’s Office has made public some of the submissions to the government’s consultation over its revised religious freedom bill.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had promised to have religious freedom legislation introduced into parliament before last Christmas, but at the eleventh hour the bill was pulled and replaced with updated legislation which some critics say is worse than the first iteration.

Returning to the consultation phase, Attorney General Christian Porter asked for public feedback on the bill and received 6,792 responses from the Australian people. To date only a few of these submissions had been released but this week several hundred were added to the department’s website.

Health Organisations

The WA AIDS Council (WAAC) argued that the proposed bill could have a negative effect on Australia’s effort to end HIV transmissions. WAAC highlights that allowing doctors, pharmacists and other medical professionals to refuse service to people based on their own personal religious beliefs could stop people having access to HIV medication and PrEP treatments.

“These provisions prevent healthcare providers from developing conduct rules stopping doctors, nurses, pharmacists and psychologists from conscientiously objecting to provide a range of services to an individual if they deem a medical procedure, service or treatment to be inconsistent with their religious beliefs,” said Kristina Mitsikas, the organisation’s Interim CEO.

The AIDS Council also highlights that sections of the bill will allow for discrimination against a wide range of people in society. Kristina Mitsikas said section 42 of the legislation was problematic.

“This section overrides federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws and protects people who express prejudicial or discriminatory views about a range of Australians, including: people with HIV, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people, sex workers, people who use drugs and unmarried people and single mothers based on their religious beliefs, from prosecution.”

Queensland Positive People also highlighted how the bill could negatively impact people living with HIV and Australia’s push to reduce the level of new transmissions of the virus. This position is also stated by the National Association of People With HIV Australia, The National LGBTI Health Alliance, The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, and ACON.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists said they could not support the bill in light of the impact it would likely have on vulnerable communities. While the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists voiced their opposition to provisions in the bill which allowed medical professionals to conscientiously object from treating people.

Pharmaceutical company Roche said they believed that all people deserve an equal opportunity to medical treatment and the proposed bill allowed for people to turn patients away because of the practitioner’s religious belief.

“The rights of health practitioners should not come before the rights of patients; and should be considered in a fair and balanced way for each party.” the company said.

Youth Organisations

Youth organisations have also shared their concern about the bill. The Youth Affairs Council of Victoria raised concern about the effect the bill could have on young people’s mental health, as well as limiting people’s job and housing opportunities and their access to appropriate health care.

The Youth Affairs Council of South Australia also raised concern saying the legislation would erode people’s rights and allow unprecedented freedoms to discriminate against others.

“YACSA is concerned that this legislation, if passed, will not only erode the right for all citizens to be equal before the law but will also give unprecedented freedom for selected individuals, groups, organisations and institutions to legally discriminate against or publicly vilify other individuals and groups based upon personal characteristics and their own religious affiliations.” the groups said in their submission.

Women’s Groups

Women’s Health Victoria, whose submission was backed by eight regional women’s health organisations, argued against the bill saying it had the potential to make accessing essential health services difficult for women and would lead to legal discrimination against some groups in society.

“The Bill creates a double standard whereby religious views and practices are protected from discrimination, but discrimination against other groups on the grounds of religion is authorised, even in cases where a religious institution is providing publicly funded services.” the organisation said.

Women’s Health Grampians and the Central Highlands Integrated Family Violence Committee raised similar concerns. While the Top End Women’s Legal Service labeled the bill “not fit for purpose” and said it would “facilitate an unsavoury irony for anti-discrimination legislation to allow for discrimination.”

Anti-domestic violence group Our Watch also voiced their concern about Section 42 of the legislation suggesting it be removed completely, and argued that the bill may have a detrimental effect on women trying to access services.

Anti-Discrimination Viewpoints

In their submission to the Attorney General, the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commision highlighted a case study where a gay person would face legal discrimination if the laws were passed.

They suggest that if a gay person overhead their Manager saying negative statements about gay people in the workplace, and then they were subsequently turned down for a promotion – they would no longer be able to question if the process was fair.

Like many of the submissions they argue against Section 42 of the legislation saying that the description of statements that “harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify” as being unacceptable, had not been clearly defined within the legislation.

Christian Porter’s Victorian counterpart Jill Hennessy said in her letter that it was disappointing that the federal government has ignored the concerns raised during the first consultation on the legislation. Hennessy said Porter and his colleagues had ignored “legitimate and well-founded concerns” that people had.

The Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission also calls for all of Section 42 of the bill to be deleted, among a raft of proposed adaptations.

LGBTIQ+ Groups

Well known LGBTI rights groups such as just.equal and Equality Australia have argued against the bill but man smaller organisations have also put in submissions voicing alarm at the bills intentions.

Trans Action Warrang, an autonomous collective of transgender rights shared their alarm over segments of the bill which they argue will lead to increased discrimination for people who are gender diverse.

“The Religious Discrimination Bill introduces unprecedented and harmful provisions which license discrimination against certain groups of people, including the transgender, gender diverse, and questioning community.” the group said.

The collective said while they recognised there may be a need to provide more legal protections for people of faith, these should not come at the cost of other people’s protections.

Sydney Queer Muslims also voiced their opposition to the bill saying it would put people at greater risk of family violence. While the Sydney Bi+ Network said the legislation; “privileges bigoted religious views over the wellbeing and safety of marginalised people and communities.”

Sydney’s Pride History Group said the government would be entrenching a double standard into law if they allowed the legislation to progress in its current state.

The Sutherland and St George LGBTIQA+ Steering Committee said they were concerned that young queer people who face difficulty in accessing health care.

“A young person in need of healthcare should be able to have the confidence that if they attend their GP they will receive the care that they need,” the group told Attorney General Christian Porter.

Switchboard Victoria said the government needed to undertake most consultation with LGBTI+ groups on how the bill would impact people in relation to mental health.

The organisation suggested that the creation of a Human Rights Commissioner focussed on gender and sexuality was needed at the Human Rights Commission. This was proposed by the Labor party prior to the 2019 election, while the government has said its priority is creating a Religious Discrimination commissioner, even though the Ruddock Review said such a position was not warranted.

The South Australian Rainbow Advocacy Alliance told the government they were disappointed with the second draft of the bill and said it did nothing to reduce the “unreasonably and disproportionately harm LGBTIQ+ people throughout Australia.”

Rainbow Territory said the government should abandon it’s push to create legislation in this area. The organisation provided multiple examples of how LGBTIQ+ people living in remote areas can be turned away from health care providers, and suggested if the new laws are implemented this will only get worse.

The Parents of Transgender Youth Equity ridiculed the bill saying it was still not acceptable to insult young transgender people, even if you used a “caring manner.”

“The Bills allow anyone in good faith, to tell a trans or gender diverse child repeatedly in a very caring and nice manner that they’re going to hell, that they will have eternal damnation, that they are influenced by the devil, that they must change, and the only reason they continually tell the child this is because they care for the child and want to save them,” the group said.

The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby describes the bill as “vague and dangerous in scope” saying it will create division throughout Australian society. The lobby group says the bill will normalise bigotry and enable discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people.

Protecting Vulnerable Members of Society

The Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS) said when it came to its work in protecting the most vulnerable members of society, those affected by poverty, injustice, social inclusion and disadvantage, the bill did nothing to improve their situation.

“The Religious Freedom Bills as currently drafted are unnecessary, dangerous and undermine Australia’s commitment as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” TasCOSS declared, suggesting the government should head back to the drawing board for a third attempt at making the laws.

The legal profession

Maurice Blackburn, one of the largest law firms in Australia tell the government to completely abandon the legislation – saying it puts protections from religious discrimination over and above other forms of discrimination.

They recommend the government should look towards; “Enshrining the rights of workers to freedom of religious expression in a broader, national Bill or Charter of Human Rights, or adjust the provisions of existing workplace law to achieve the same end.”

The Law Council of Australia wrote in their submission that they’ve seen no evidence of the “imminent peril” of religious freedom in Australia and questioned the need for the legislation. The organisation highlights what it sees as many flaws within the proposed bill.

The Human Rights Law Centre offered a detailed proposal that outlined why they viewed the legislation as inefficient. They say that the bills will make it harder for LGBTIQ+ people to access essential health care, compromise employers ability to maintain safe workplaces and expose people to offensive statements under the guise of religious belief.

Calls for a National Bill of Rights

Many submissions argue that the government’s approach is introducing laws to protect people from religious discrimination is flawed and a more effective approach would be a broader bill of rights.

The Western Sydney Community Forum said while it was in favour of providing greater protections for religious beliefs a national human rights framework would be a more effective approach.

“A national human rights framework would uphold the inalienable rights of all people across all aspects of public and private life, not only one aspect – religion. Legislation should focus on equality and equity. Conversely the Religious Freedoms Review has resulted in draft Bills that are potentially divisive and if formalised may put the human rights of some groups at risk.” the group said.

Rainbow Territory also threw their support behind the push for a national bill of rights.

Religious groups show support for the bill

While the majority of submissions appear to be critical of the bill, the proposed legislation does have it’s supporters and has been welcomed by a range of religious groups.

The Australian Christian Lobby says the bill still does not have enough protections to guarantee Australia’s religious freedom and more adjustments are needed in many areas.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church argues that the second draft of the bill still needs further refining and a much broader definition of what constitutes a religious body is required.

The religious group, which has 65,000 members in Australia, say the definition must be expanded to include charities, non-for-profit organisations and companies run by religious bodies.

The church also rejects the government’s requirement for a person claiming to have acted on religious belief to need another person to validate that that the belief is inline with church teachings. While opponents of the bill have argued that this requirement is too broad, the church argues it needs to be more flexible.

The church suggests; “it would be better expressed as to whether the person ‘genuinely believed that their conduct or belief was in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion.'”

The Anglican Church however disagreed on this issue saying tighter controls were needed to determine if a belief was in line with the teachings of the religious group.

The Presbyterian Church said with the second draft of the bill they remained concerned that seeking to protect religious freedom by codification may prove to be counterproductive.

The National Association of Catholic Families were also concerned that the bill did not go far enough in defining what constitutes a religious body.

They argue that exemptions against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference and gender should also extend to aged care facilities, retirement villages, residential colleges, school boarding houses, camps or conference facilities, and religious based marriage counselling organisations.

The Catholic organisation also calls for the clause that stops speech that is likely to “harass, vilify or incite hatred” to be removed arguing that the meanings of such terms are hard to define.

Other Family groups such as Family Voice Australia also declare the bill is inefficient and it should extend it’s anti-discrimination realm to cover commercial businesses that have links to religious bodies.

Attorney General Christian Porter is expected to introduce the bill into parliament in the coming months.

Graeme Watson

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