Catholic bishops add to concerns over Australian religious discrimination bill

St Marys Cathedral in Sydney Australia CreditMaurizio De Mattei  Shutterstock  St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. |  Maurizio De Mattei / Shutterstock.

The Catholic bishops of Australia are among those who have called for changes to a contentious religious discrimination bill, saying that while it shows promise, it does not do enough to safeguard religious freedom.

The submission period on the draft version of the religious freedom bill ended last week. The bill is intended to make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the ground of their religious belief or activity; establish a religious freedom commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission; and amend existing laws regarding religious freedom, including marriage and charities law, and objects clauses in anti-discrimination law.

The coalition government wants to make religious belief and activity a protected class, like race or sex. It also hopes to ensure that groups rejecting same-sex marriage are not stripped of their charitable status.

In its current version, the bill would not protect religious statements that are "malicious, would harass, vilify or incite hatred or violence against a person or group or which advocate for the commission of a serious criminal offence".

The Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference filed a submission on the draft bill, calling it "an important acknowledgement of the right to freedom of religion," but warning that it falls short in several key areas.

In particular, they pointed to a provision in the bill clarifying that religious schools are not discriminating through actions "that may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of [their] religion." This provision should be extended to other organizations with a religious mission and ethos too, they said.

It is important for Catholic health groups, welfare agencies, and other entities to be able to employ staff members who will uphold the tenets of their faith, the bishops said.

"The Catholic Church across its many varied entities and works is a substantial employer and has many staff who may not share our religious faith, but, importantly, our staff see and support the value of our mission to serve others."

Catholic medical facilities should be able to expect employees to provide care according to a Catholic ethos, recognizing that some products and procedures will not be offered due to religious beliefs, the bishops said.

They added that religious-run publishing houses, retreat centers and other nonprofit entities should be protected "because they are run with a religious purpose."

In addition, the bishops objected to courts making theological judgments about religious convictions, saying that they should instead "consider the policies of religious entities that detail the practical application of those religious beliefs."

The Australian bishops stressed the importance of recognizing religious liberty not only as freedom of worship, but also as freedom to live out one's faith through charitable works, education, and public debate.

"This legislation is important because, as well as protecting against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity, it provides a positive expression of the right to religious freedom…Previously, Commonwealth law has only recognised religious liberty in exceptions to other discrimination legislation," the conference said, calling for further work to improve the bill.

Anglican leaders have voiced similar concerns, and said that they cannot support the current draft of the proposal.

The legislation has also drawn criticism from those who argue that it goes too far in offering religious protections and could be used to shield discrimination and harassment against LGBT individuals and other minorities.

Andrew Christopoulos, national president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, called the legislation "unacceptable because it allows religious belief to be used as a cloak for sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices," according to the Australian Associated Press.

Arthur Moses, president of the Law Council of Australia, also spoke out against the bill last month, opposing conscience protections for medical professionals who have religious objections to participating in abortion.

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The Australian Industry Group warned that the proposal could make it difficult for employers to enforce codes of conduct, as employees could justify non-compliance by citing religious beliefs. This could expose other workers to harassment, the group argued in its submission on the legislation.

Innes Willox, chief executive of the group, which represents employers in fields including construction, manufacturing, and telecommunications, spoke out against the legislation this week, the Australian Associated Press reported.

"The potential for the provisions of the bill of whatever kind, in the name of an undefined religious belief should not be underestimated," Willox said.

"The bill limits the ability for employers to regulate, respond to and manage instances of inappropriate conduct by an employee that may cause conflict with, or detriment to, co-workers," he said, warning that there was potential for the bill "to be used to advance and protect extremist opinions or behaviour."

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