Religious Discrimination Bill Update

On Friday April 12, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met with a number of faith leaders, including members of the Freedom for Faith board, to discuss the Religious Discrimination Bill and related legislative changes, including changes to the Sex Discrimination Act for faith-based schools.

This meeting was very positive, with the PM saying that religious freedom “will not go backwards while I’m Prime Minister of Australia”. He also indicated that he believed that faith-based organisations (including schools) requiring employees to live out their faith was “not discrimination”. This meeting also effectively ruled out any deal with the Greens to pass legislation.

This is a very positive development given the media coverage of the issue over the past month.

What has happened in the past month?

In late March, Mr Albanese made the commitment that any religious discrimination legislation and any changes to faith-based schools would only be introduced if it had support from the opposition: “Our position is that if there is bipartisan agreement we will proceed. If there is not agreement, then now is not the time to have a divisive debate”.

However, a week later, the Prime Minister hinted that he might move away from that commitment, saying “If the Greens are willing to support the rights of people to practice their faith, then that would be a way forward, but we don’t currently have that”.

This potential change in direction received rapid condemnation from faith leaders who (assisted by Freedom for Faith) issued an open letter to the Prime Minister. This letter was reported widely (e.g. ABC, The Australian), and triggered multiple meetings between faith leaders and the Government, including the meeting on Friday.

At the same time Justice Rothman, the Commissioner responsible for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report into Faith-based schools and sex discrimination, said faith-based employers needed a “positive right” to hire staff based on their ethos. This is in stark contrast to the recommendations of the Report, which Justice Rothman put down to the limited terms of reference that were given for the report. This led to further calls from faith leaders for the Labor Government to reject the recommendations from the ALRC report.

What is in the legislation?

The legislation has not been made public, and has only been shown to a select group on extremely secret terms. It appears that the Government is hoping to keep their legislation as secret as possible to avoid the “divisive debate” that the PM mentioned. However, Freedom for Faith’s Executive Director and a number of board members have been taken through the legislation either by the Government or by the Shadow Attorney General Michaelia Cash, who has been supplied a copy by the Government.

The last version of the Bill that we have seen had significant problems, and did not get support from faith leaders. Following the meeting on Friday, we are expecting to see a new version of the Bill that attempts to address our concerns and fulfil the Prime Minister’s promises.

The Government appears to be trying to get agreement on the final legislation text before it becomes public, so they can pass it as quickly as possible and avoid an acrimonious public debate. The advantage of this approach is that issues of detail and nuance can be negotiated away from the glare of the media. The disadvantage is that it limits who can have input into the consultation process.

Freedom for Faith and heads of faith are working with the Government to widen the circle of consultation to allow faith leaders from a wide spectrum to have input and come to a consensus, without triggering an all-out media blitz.

What next?

Consultation and negotiation continues with the Government and heads of faith, and Freedom for Faith will continue to support that process.

With the Prime Minister’s re-stated commitment to bipartisan cooperation and protection of religious freedom, the two most likely outcomes are:

  1. A suitable Religious Discrimination Bill and other legislation changes are negotiated, are released with the support of faith leaders and the Opposition, and are passed quickly, or
  2. No legislative changes happen this year, or before the next election.

There is still the possibility that the Government chooses to go ahead with legislation that does not have the support of faith communities. Freedom for Faith has prepared a campaign to mobilise faith communities, ready to roll out in this eventuality.

Either way, unless good legislation is passed, this will be an issue for the next Federal election, which is due between August 2024 and May 2025, and most likely to be held in May.

Following the success of our election candidate forums in NSW, and the start of the same plans for the Queensland election in October, we are planning to help churches run forums in Federal electorates across the nation. We will be asking both parties to clearly outline their plans for religious discrimination, religious freedom and faith-based schools, charities and other organisations.

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