"That may be a difficult test to satisfy in the eyes of a court," it continued. "The court may find it hard to see how the Catholic school's preference in terms of employment may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion. The school, however, may take the view that it is a necessary implication of their doctrines that they want to maintain a Catholic ethos by having a 'critical mass' of believing staff. Whether or not this policy does flow from religious doctrines – it is really about the purpose of having a Catholic school – it would be best if the legislation made it clear that such a policy was not unlawful."
Another problem in the bill identified by Freedom for Faith is that its definition of a "religious body" excludes hospitals, aged care providers, publishing houses, and youth campsites run by religious groups.
As written, the bill would "prevent Christian publishers and Christian youth campsites advertising for Christian staff. This would be a bizarre and profoundly damaging outcome of laws ostensibly designed to bolster religious freedom," the legal group noted.
Freedom for Faith urged that the bill "make a positive statement … that it is lawful for a religious body, a faith-based educational institution or a charity established for religious purposes, to appoint, or prefer to appoint, staff who practise the religion with which the organisation is associated."
It said this is preferable to the bill creating exemptions so as "to get away from the language of having a 'right to discriminate'"; because "there is a lot of opposition from the left of politics to any exemptions under anti-discrimination laws," and there would be campaigns for repeal; and because, since the government has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to report on how to balance competing claims of religious freedom rights and LGBT rights, "it does not make much sense to create new exemptions in legislation at the same time as two organisations that report to the Attorney are busily working to reduce or eliminate them."
The second main objection of Freedom for Faith is that the bill could make some religious groups "act contrary to their beliefs if they were never permitted to rely on good faith religious objections to the use of their premises." For example, a Catholic hospital could be made to provide euthanasia on its premises.
Thirdly, the legal think tank said the bill's current form "may not allow schools to preference students of a particular faith. So for example, Catholic schools may not be allowed to give preference for admission" to the Catholic children.
Freedom for Faith suggested a number of other, minor improvements to the bill, and provided a suggested draft for a new section on employment.
Similarly, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, which has reportedly worked closely in the past with the local Catholic diocese, has said the religious discrimination bill is so flawed that it cannot be supported in its current form.
Some conservative members of parliament have asked instead for a religious freedom bill. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, of the Liberal Party, voiced concerns July 9 that the bill does not go far enough, saying it "would be defensive in nature and limited to protecting against acts and practices by others which are discriminatory on the grounds of religion."
She said that "quiet Australians now expect the Coalition to legislate to protect their religious freedom."
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Australia has seen debate over religious freedom in recent years with respect to the seal of the confessional, hiring decisions, and same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney noted last year that "we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia," and that "powerful interests now seek to marginalize religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections."