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Religious Discrimination Bill + Sex Discrimination Act by Natalie Lenwood

  • February 16, 2022
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The Australian Government’s introduction of a package of legislation, aimed to combat religious discrimination, has been met with much controversy and media debate. The Religious Discrimination Bill has been presented as aiming to address a gap in the Federal discrimination law framework, with existing legislation regulating discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identification, disability, race and age. This is accompanied by a separate proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act, attempting to balance the protection of the rights of religious communities, whist simultaneously strengthening protections for LGBTQI students.

The Religious Discrimination Bill proposes to address discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs in all facets of public life – work, education, and provisions of services, goods and facilities. The Bill additionally prescribes certain conduct that does not constitute discrimination. Most controversially, this includes ‘statements of belief’. The clause stipulates that statements of ‘genuinely held’ religious belief would not amount to discrimination, so long as the statements are not made maliciously, or in a threatening or vilifying manner. Moreover, this clause would override existing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. As such, it has been argued that the statements of belief clause effectively permits religious individuals to engage in mild discrimination against other groups.

Additionally, the proposed amendment to section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, delivered alongside the Religious Discrimination Bill, seeks to remove the capacity for religious schools to discriminate and expel students on the basis of their sexual orientation. Religious schools have enjoyed this broad exemption to anti-discrimination laws, contentiously aiming to ‘avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents to that religion’. However, the proposed amendment fails to offer analogous protection for students on the basis of their gender identity, relationship status, or pregnancy. Additionally, the amendment has been sharply criticised by Liberal MP Dave Sharma, highlighting that this alteration lacks protection for students being indirectly forced out of schools, by way of harassment, intimidation, or bullying. It is also for these reasons that LGBTQI advocate groups such as Equality Australia argue that the proposed changes are entirely inadequate.

On Thursday the 10th of February, the Government placed the proposed legislative package on ice, avoiding a vote in the upper house for the time being. The continuing controversy surrounding the proposed legislation and amendments raises questions concerning if it is fundamentally possible to preserve freedom of religious expression without encroaching on individual’s rights to be protected from discrimination. Ultimately, this highlights this complex balancing act that will likely continue to be a prominent and passionate topic of debate. Despite passing through the lower house of Parliament, it is clear that the future of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and the amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, remains very much unclear.