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Issue #1906      March 9, 2020

Politics in the Pub Perth

The Religious Freedom Bill

On the 19th February 2020, Politics in the Pub in Perth held a forum to discuss the origins, significance, and meaning of the Religious Freedom Bill which is currently before the Federal Australian Parliament. The forum was chaired by Elly Hulm, a member of the CPA in Perth who noted the bill was being shunted between the two houses of the parliament leaving no space for proper scrutiny by the media against a background of a global coronavirus epidemic.

The first speaker was Dr Christopher Crouch, a former Professor of Cultural Studies and a working artist who began his presentation by questioning the origins of the Bill. The impetus for the drafting of the Bill, said Crouch, came from the right-wing conservative fallout out from the passing of the Same Sex Marriage law. Another part came from the controversy generated by the comments of Rugby Australia player Israel Folau on his Facebook page with regards to his Christian religious beliefs concerning the fate of gay people. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison, himself a member of a conservative evangelical church in Sydney, lead the right-wing pushback over the same-sex marriage law as they saw their “power was under attack and its influence threatened.” It was not, as suggested by Crouch, because of a genuine concern for Muslim and Jewish communities who are the most religiously persecuted groups in Australia (as mentioned in the findings of the Religious Freedom Review report released in October 2018, which kicked off the Bill).

The Review Report contained twenty recommendations including that faith-based schools may discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, that schools be required to provide sufficient relevant information to parents on instruction on “religious and moral matters,” to consider whether their content is consistent with the parents’ or guardians’ religious beliefs, and to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of having a particular religion or having no religion. The first version of the Bill was defeated just before Christmas 2019. Crouch said it was important to consider the diversity of religion in Australia in the context of the way in which the Bill is being framed. While fifty-two per cent of people in Australia say they are Christian, there are also cultural differences which are wrapped up in religious observance by Christians which range from the majority which are Catholic (about fifty per cent), to the more conservative evangelical churches sixteen per cent. Then 2.5 per cent are Muslim, 2.5 per cent Buddhist and thirty per cent who have no religion. Around Australia there were also differences in the number of people who are Christian, of which Queensland (fifty-five per cent) and New South Wales (fifty-three per cent) are the highest.

In considering the need for the legislation, at present all states around Australia have absolute guarantees of religious freedom except New South Wales. The new Religious Freedom Bill would work against this. It is interesting the Bill does not have a definition of religion and it is also unhelpful that it bundles together religious activity and religious belief. Crouch concluded by expressing his concern the second version of the Bill also contained a clause which allows a person to criticise another person’s religion so long as it does not “harass, threaten or vilify’’ that person. This, he said, would conflict with the existing state anti-discrimination legislation and lower the tone of civility in our society.

The next speaker was Thom Richards. Thom spoke about some of the consequences of the Bill should it become law. Richards said the Bill had provisions which allowed private hospitals (such as St John of God) to legally fire a member of their staff observing a particular tenet of their religious faith, for instance religious items of clothing such as a headscarf or kippah. A Christian housing organisation could also deny a Somalian refugee family housing on the basis of religious belief. Pupils and staff at faith-based schools could also be expelled for being gay or transgender – though Richards recalled from his time at a Christian High School, that teachers often already had other ways of expelling students suspected of being gay.

Seamus Carey, a student and CPA member in Perth, was the final speaker. He commenced his speech by outlining how the Bill is written in such a way as to be deliberately unclear. For instance, much has been said in the media about the Bill containing clauses which will allow people to be free to insult others on the basis of religion. The Bill’s text in some places aims to contradict this, however a close reading shows that it does in fact create plenty of such possibilities. The proposed legislation would also allow religious healthcare providers to deny abortions and contraception, a provision that would be especially alarming for women in regional Australia where it is already difficult for women to access these services. The Bill would have an impact on the LGBT community, notwithstanding gains made under the same-sex marriage campaign – LGBT rights are not enshrined by this Bill. It will leave the LGBT community with the need to continually assert their rights to equal and respectful treatment on an ongoing basis. Carey said the legislation could potentially sanction discrimination in your own rental home if the landlord sought to discriminate on the basis of religion.

A lively question and answer session from a diverse audience of about 30 people followed the stimulating and critical debate where people asked what could be done to alter the Bill before it became law. There is not a homogeneous religious approval of the Bill, even among Christian churches, with the Uniting and Anglican churches in particular being opposed.

The Communist Party of Australia opposes the Religious Freedom Bill as it is seen as being unnecessary and is discriminatory in its own right in what it seeks to achieve, which is to align the capitalist state with a church and religion sanctioned by the state.

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