Why the Religious Freedom Bill should be scrapped completely


It’s time to shut the door on religious privilege: why the Religious Freedom Bill should be scrapped completely

LGBTIQ+ Australians face the real possibility of a Religious Freedom and Discrimination Bill that is less bad than previous drafts, but still harmful. We must not accept compromise. The Bill must be scrapped so Australia can shut the door on religious privilege.

Most LGBTIQ+ people welcomed news that moderate Liberals in the federal government have expressed reservations about the proposed Religious Freedom and Discrimination Bill, and that Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, seemed to agree.

If you need reminding, the Bill was meant to prevent discrimination against people of faith, but the first two drafts allowed discrimination in the name of faith.

The Bill would legitimise harassment of LGBTIQ+ people in the workplace, allow more discrimination against us by schools, roll back of state anti-bullying laws that protect us, and give doctors the right not to prescribe treatments we need, all in the name of religion.

The same goes for other groups that fall foul of traditional religious prejudice like people with disability, women, unmarried partners and minority faiths.

The Bill should be called Religious Freedom-to-Discriminate Bill.

In fact, it’s not about freedom for faith at all. It’s about privilege for prejudice.

The danger we face, now that some of the wilder excesses of the Bill may be out the window, is this: there will be provisions that continue to harm us, but we are expected to accept, because “it’s not as bad as it could have been”.

For example, the Bill might not allow workplace harassment but still override Tasmania’s landmark law against bullying. It may not allow health care professionals to discriminate, but widen the scope for discrimination in schools.

What fuels my fear is that we have been here before.

In 2017, anti-LGBTIQ+ elements of the Turnbull Government seized on marriage equality as an opportunity to significantly roll back LGBTIQ+ rights.

Knowing they had lost the argument about same-sex couples marrying, they ran a postal survey No Campaign focussed on the “threat” of marriage equality to religious freedom (opposition to LGBTIQ+ school inclusion and trans equality also figured prominently).

When they lost, they immediately swung their narrative about defending Christians from LGBTIQ+ persecution into a push to overturn decades-old discrimination laws.

In response, leaders of the Equality Campaign worked with moderate Liberals to avoid the worst of the anti-LGBTIQ+ push, but the legislation they delivered was still full of inequities and “religious freedom” carve outs.

It turned out to be the worst marriage equality legislation ever introduced in Australia and arguably the worst in the world.

It directly overrode state anti-discrimination laws, especially Tasmania’s.

Worst of all, it set a precedent for allowing discrimination in the name of “religious freedom” which has led directly to the Bill before us today.

It left the door ajar so religious privilege could waltz straight into our lives.

The architects of Australia’s 2017 marriage legislation made three grave errors.

The Equality Campaign did not use the opportunity of the postal survey to build a movement to defend existing discrimination protections in the same way the No Campaign built one to roll back those protections. The Equality Campaign was too afraid of losing the survey, or not winning it sufficiently, despite that never being in doubt. Indeed, campaigning for existing discrimination protections could have increased the Yes vote by reinforcing the equality narrative and challenging the No Campaign’s fearmongering.

The Equality Campaign and moderate Liberals believed the “religious freedom” movement could be appeased with trade-offs, despite all evidence to the contrary in the United States, the home of that movement. The push by conservative religious leaders for special legal rights in the name of “freedom” is fuelled by a fear of losing cultural and political power. Concessions to that unassuageable fear were only ever going to escalate their demands.

Those who developed the marriage legislation thought the more MPs who voted for marriage equality the less “reversible” the reform would be. Hence, they endorsed the level of compromise that would secure the highest parliamentary vote. That was over-caution speaking again. Marriage equality was always going to be a reform that, once passed, would never be revisited. Why? Because the sky didn’t fall in. We only needed a simple majority of parliamentarians to achieve reform. The legislation did not need to be weakened to win over more.

The same people who were involved in the bad deal over marriage equality are at the centre of today’s negotiations over the Religious Freedom-to-Discriminate Bill. Equality Australia is the Equality Campaign with a new name. I fear some of the moderate Liberal MPs who did deals over marriage back then, might be tempted to do deals over religious discrimination now.

Perhaps the result will be different this time. But we can’t afford to sit and hope. We must campaign to defeat the Bill entirely.

The Bill must be scrapped because it is misconceived and fatally flawed. More than that, doing away with the Bill is necessary if we are to stop the “religious freedom” movement in its tracks. It is the best way stand our ground against those who seek to erode our rights. It is how we slam the door shut on religious privilege.

If the Government genuinely wants to introduce a conventional law that will protect people of faith from discrimination and nothing more, that’s fine. But the only way I can see that happening is if the current Bill is scrapped completely and the Government begins from scratch.

So how do we stand against compromise and stop this Bill?

In 2017, I wrote an entire book about why we should not accept compromise on marriage equality in the name of “religious freedom”.

On top of that, I worked with other dissident marriage equality campaigners on a survey that showed the LGBTIQ+ community didn’t want compromise.

I also spoke against compromise at community forums and worked with the Green Senators to introduce amendments to the compromised Bill.

That was not enough. It was too late. The deal was already sealed.

Having learnt that bitter lesson, I have been working with others from the very first day the Religious Freedom-to-Discriminate Bill was made public to expose its flaws.

For the last two years I have worked closely with disability, women’s health and PFLAG advocates to show why the Bill is untenable.

Right now I’m working with my colleagues in Just.Equal Australia to relay the “no-compromise” message directly to federal politicians.

Just.Equal Australia is also communicating the message through brochures distributed to all MPs and senators.

Just as important are the rallies organised by Community Action for Rainbow Rights where the simple message is “kill the bill”.

But politicians are inclined to listen to those who tell them what they want to hear.

The voice against compromise needs to say loudly and clearly all the things that weren’t said or heard in 2017.

It needs to say this Bill is part of a broader push to roll back discrimination protections, a push that must end now.

It needs to highlight the value of existing discrimination protections and how they have made Australia a more inclusive nation.

It needs to chime with voices from other affected communities in a loud chorus of opposition.

It needs to remind the public that appeasing those who push for religious privilege is not possible, and just makes things worse.

It needs to remind lobbyists that we only need 51% of the vote in parliament to defeat the Bill.

Most of all, the voice against compromise must issue from many more mouths so it can’t be ignored.

Rodney Croome 

Rodney Croome AM is a long-time LGBTQIA+ equality advocate. Rodney led the successful campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania, was a founder and national director of Australian Marriage Equality, and currently serves as a member of the Equality Tasmania committee, and on the LGBTIQ+ reference groups of several Tasmanian Government agencies.

Rodney joined just.equal in 2016. Rodney has worked on a wide range of LGBTIQA+ issues from discrimination and hate speech, through relationship recognition, parenting and marriage to education, mental health, policing, trans equality and blood donation. In recognition of his work Rodney was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003, Tasmanian Australian of the Year in 2015 and an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Tasmania in 2019. He lives with his partner, Rafael, in North West Tasmania.

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