Amended religious freedom bill ‘deeply flawed’, says Law Council

Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses SC.The nation’s peak legal body has condemned the Morrison government’s revised religious discrimination bill, declaring it remains “a deeply flawed piece of legislation” that puts freedom of religious expression ahead of other human rights.

Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses SC said ­Attorney-General Christian Porter should not take “any comfort” from some religious bodies expressing support for recent changes to the draft legislation.

“The important question is whether it is in the best interests of all Australians and harmony in Australian society,” Mr Moses said. “It remains a deeply flawed piece of legislation. Our strength as a nation is our belief in the rights and freedoms of all Australians. Laws which favour one right over another, as the proposed religious discrimination bill does, weaken the rights of everybody, and should be a major concern for all Australians.”

Under changes to the legislation unveiled this month by Mr Porter and Scott Morrison, churches, faith-based schools, hospitals and charities will be able to discriminate on hiring staff based on their religious beliefs.

The new draft bill also strengthens conscientious objection protections for religious groups and individuals, and provides a clearer definition of vilification as “incitement of hatred or violence”.

The 11 changes came after the initial draft bill was almost universally criticised, including by religious groups, business, legal experts and gay lobby groups.

Mr Moses said the changes did not improve the bill, warning its passage through parliament would create an “ad hoc approach to rights” and risked causing ­confusion in the courts and the community.

The Law Council has been pushing for a charter of human rights as a “coherent legal framework to express, balance and protect all rights and freedoms”.

“Prioritising the freedom of religious expression over other human rights, such as protections against discrimination based on gender, race, disability, age or sexual orientation, is difficult to justify in modern Australia,” Mr Moses said.

He took aim at the bill’s reliance on using the term “statements of belief” as a way of offering protection for religious expression. “This is not a well-understood concept and will lead to considerable confusion in the courts,” Mr Moses said.

“Put simply, a person would be able state views that would otherwise be considered unlawfully discriminatory but claim it as a statement of belief and be protected. They may say that women are ‘deficient in intelligence and religion’ but as a statement of belief this would be protected, given its origin in ­religious texts. Why should Australian women be subject to such insulting and discriminatory statements cloaked as religious belief? It is this approach, where one set of rights are preferred over the rights of others, that makes this proposed legislation so troubling.”

Mr Moses criticised the proposals to allow faith-based hospitals and aged-care providers to discriminate on hiring staff based on their religious beliefs.

“I seriously query whether a hospital orderly needs to be of a particular religion in order that a religious hospital can preserve its religious ethos but this is what the draft bill would allow,” he said. “It seems odd that a hospital that receives public funding from all Australians can deny employment to some Australians.”

There will be consultation on the revised draft bill over summer before it is put to parliament.

The Prime Minister said this month he wanted the process to be “unifying and inclusive”. On announcing changes to the bill, Mr Morrison said he was looking forward to the next round of consultations so the legislation could be supported by both chambers of parliament.

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