The long-running debate over the Coalition’s religious freedom bill has been turned upside down in the past week after the federal government made a significant concession to the LGBTQI community.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was hoping to use the bill, expected to come to a vote in Parliament in the next two weeks, in his pitch to religious voters at the next election and as a wedge issue against Labor.
The bill, in theory, offers the same protection from discrimination on the basis of religion as already applies to gender, sexuality and race.
Mr Morrison kept the progressives at bay when he first proposed the idea by promising to ban such persecution of LGBTQI students at schools through amendments to a different piece of legislation, the Sex Discrimination Act. But then he muddied the waters by adding the caveat that protection for LGBTQI kids would have to wait until next year.
The delay made many suspicious about the government’s level of commitment to honouring the promise.
The Coalition’s ambiguous position became untenable after it came to light that Citipointe Christian College, a religious school in Queensland, had sent prospective staff and parents a contract insisting students denounce homosexuality and asking them to agree to specific gender roles.
The scandal confirmed the fears of those who believed the religious freedom bill would give a green light to homophobic schools. Providing they publish a written document like Citipointe’s outlining their discriminatory policies, the bill says many religious organisations including schools will be free to discriminate against LGBTQI employees, students or clients and indeed against people of other religions.
Mr Morrison tried to put out that fire by promising to pass the bill protecting LGBTQI students before the election. But not even everyone in his own cabinet agreed. Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker, a conservative, said she could not “swear in blood” that the changes would be passed.
The politics are now finely balanced. Despite some misgivings, the ALP seems inclined to pass the religious freedom bill to avoid a fight on the government’s turf. But religious groups have overplayed their hand by pushing for a bill that has highlighted the freedom to discriminate against LGBTQI people, which religious organisations already enjoy under existing laws.
The Herald welcomes Mr Morrison’s pledge to protect LGBTQI students from persecution in this term of Parliament. Religious schools, which receive copious government funds, must not be allowed to expel or harass their students simply because of who they are. On the question of how these schools deal with staff, we have argued before that where staff are engaged in active teaching of religious precepts, the school can argue the need to assert the precepts of their faith, but that maths, English or physical education teachers should face no such discrimination.
As for the religious freedom bill, it has been rushed with minimal consultation and it should be reconsidered. While the goal of protecting religion is worthy, the current bill gets the balance wrong by giving too much protection to religious zealots to engage in bigotry.
To take one example, it restricts professional qualifying bodies such as doctors and nurses associations when they try to set binding standards on how their religious members behave towards LGBTQI people or people of other religions. A joint parliamentary human rights committee inquiry was told this could interfere with the provision of health care.
The bill in its current form could stir up a wave of litigation, sow confusion between federal and state anti-discrimination laws and exacerbate community tensions.
It is hard to see the need for radical change given that Australia is already a highly tolerant society that offers substantial protection to all religions.