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Australia: Beware of “religious discrimination” bill !

Sunday 1 March 2020, by siawi3


If Made Law, Sweeping Religious Discrimination Bill Will Usher in “Cruel Australia”

By Val Wilde

December 17, 2019

In recent weeks, the debate over “religious freedom” in Australia — simmering since 2017’s marriage equality decision — has reached a roaring boil as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney General Christian Porter hammer out a bill designed to address the problem of discrimination based on religion.

Their first attempt, a draft originally slated to be tabled in Parliament before Christmas, was described as “friendless.” It was roundly criticized: Progressives pointed out the ways it opened marginalized people up to discrimination, while conservatives felt it didn’t go far enough to protect their religious expression. Neither side was willing to support it as it stood.

Accordingly, Morrison went back to the drawing board to try to address these concerns, resulting in the new draft introduced to the public last week.

In a statement to the press, Morrison described the proposed legislation as protecting both religious and non-religious Australians from discrimination:

I gave a commitment that we would ensure that people would not be discriminated against in this country, as a basis of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs. And we have been going through a process, a patient process, a process that I want to be unifying and to be inclusive, to ensure that we enshrine these protections for Australians going forward into the future and that we do that on a platform of tolerance and inclusion that brings people together around those big issues.

While religious groups are praising and celebrating the changes that have come to the bill, the nature of those changes makes it clear that the government has given far more weight to right-wing criticisms than to the fears of legalized discrimination expressed by marginalized Australians and their allies.

Summarizing the new draft, Porter outlined eleven key changes, many of which expand the rights and freedoms of religious groups to wield their faith as a cudgel against people they dislike.

It’s not even subtle. The explanatory notes to the bill include a bizarre example involving health care, in which doctors can’t refuse to treat a patient who is transgender… but they’re within their rights to tell the patient, during the course of treatment, that they reject the patient’s very identity:

A statement by a doctor to a transgender patient of their religious belief that God made men and women in his image and that gender is therefore binary may be a statement of belief, provided it is made in good faith. However, a refusal by that doctor to provide medical services to a transgender person because of their religious belief that gender was binary would not constitute a statement of belief as the refusal to provide services constitutes an action beyond simply stating a belief, and therefore may constitute discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Of course, the new draft of the bill strengthens protections for “conscientious objection” provided that the objection being expressed is “to a procedure, not to an individual person.” So after denying the patient’s identity to their face, the doctor is free to deny access to trans-affirming health care such as hormone therapy, citing a religious objection.

The law has also weakened the ability of professional organizations to impose codes of conduct on their members — if the above doctor is a member of a medical association, that association would not be allowed to censure him for denial of care or blatant disrespect of a patient. The burden of proof is on the organization to demonstrate that the rule they wish to impose “is an absolutely essential requirement of practising for that qualification or profession.”

And the examples just keep coming. Faith-based organizations can require employees to adhere to the rules of a particular faith. Workplace inclusion policies can be overridden by a statement of sincere religious belief. A ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ people could be overridden by the Attorney General as an infringement on freedom of religion. Public evangelism — even where it contravenes existing by-laws — becomes protected speech.

In a piece for Medium, Dr. Stuart Edser described this bill as a harbinger of a “cruel Australia” in which an equal society is pushed out of reach for those who fall afoul of religious traditions:

It is, as anyone can see, a cruel, myopic, stingy worldview that sees a certain type of Christianity, for that is what these laws are really all about, valorised and privileged above all other considerations. Religion trumps human rights. Religion trumps compassion. Religion trumps science. Religion trumps good sense.

Similar concerns have been expressed by people of faith as well. Rev. Deidre Palmer, president of the Uniting Church (Australia’s third-largest religious denomination), believes that the bill still fails to protect the human rights of those often targeted by religious bigotry:

In our previous submissions, the Uniting Church has called for changes to ensure the legislation will not override other human rights or existing protections from discrimination. On our initial reading of the second draft of these bills, we remain concerned that religious rights to discriminate will effectively be privileged over other rights.

Public comment on the bill is open until the end of January. The government plans to bring the bill before Parliament early in 2020.

If there was ever a time to speak your mind, Australia, the time is now.



#DontDivideUs: Aussie Freethought Groups Fight “Religious Discrimination” Bill

By Val Wilde

February 28, 2020

In the wake of public consultations around Australia’s shockingly ill-considered religious discrimination bill, groups of concerned Australian secularists have joined forces to keep the bill from becoming the law of the land.

The coalition includes national organizations like the Rationalist Society of Australia, the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, the National Secular Lobby, and the Australian Skeptics, as well as atheist and humanist groups representing major cities and states.

Close to the heart of their campaign sits the Hon. Michael Kirby, a former Justice of the High Court and patron of the Rationalist Society of Australia. Although a practicing Anglican himself, Kirby calls secularism “one of the greatest gifts that the British gave us in Australia” and has spoken vociferously about the harms the bill could cause if passed.

In an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald, he invoked the harsh divisions within American politics as a cautionary example.

Instead of acting as a shield to protect people’s religious beliefs, this bill would be a sword to harm those with different beliefs. It will encourage the bigots and those who hide behind religious claims to pursue an agenda of hate.

This bill has been conceived for internal political ends — a dangerous foundation for law on such a subject. If the law passes, I predict it will result in a rise of religious intolerance. But also an increase in anti-religious hostility to replace the more relaxed, live-and-let-live tradition of modern Australia.

We are witnessing the rise of the religious right in the US. We can do without it in Australia.

Such concerns about the irrevocable loss of Australia’s “live-and-let-live tradition” led the campaign to adopt a succinct and simple slogan: #DontDivideUs.

One could argue that the fact that conservative groups in Australia are pushing and praising this sweeping legislation — as a response to 2017’s marriage equality legislation, no less — shows that Australia is already divided.

But to enshrine the right to discriminate, even at the expense of another’s human rights, would deepen already-existing divisions started by people who think the rules of their faith should apply to everybody else.

As Rationalist Society president Dr. Meredith Doig points out, the last census revealed that Australians without religion are the country’s largest “faith” group, with 30% of Australians identifying themselves as non-believers. And as Justice Kirby demonstrates, it’s not just atheists and secular humanists who think the bill is a bad idea.

The #DontDivideUs campaign stands a decent chance of mobilizing enough popular support to make their voices heard.

The question remains whether those in the halls of power are willing to listen.