Friday, 31 January 2020

Balance still not right on religious freedoms

The Uniting Church believes the latest version of the Federal Government's Religious Freedom Bills won't adequately balance the human rights of all Australians.

 In a submission on the Religious Freedom Bills – Second Exposure Drafts, the Church said it could not support “blanket provisions that would permit statements and actions that demean and unjustly diminish the rights of others on religious grounds”.

“People should be able to enjoy their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief – however, the manifestation or expression of their religion and beliefs should not harm or demean others, nor should it automatically be privileged over other rights,” said the Church.

The UCA submission takes issue in particular with parts of Clause 42, Clause 8 and Clause 11 of the proposed legislation.

Clause 42 would ensure that a statement of religious belief does not constitute discrimination for the purposes of any Australian anti-discrimination law.

Clause 8 sets out exemptions to claims of indirect discrimination – circumstances where people are unreasonably disadvantaged by a person or organisation holding a particular religious belief or engaging in a particular religious activity. Clause 11 sets exceptionally broad exceptions for religious organisations to discriminate, mostly in terms of employment.

While generally welcoming the Government’s efforts to strengthen protections to prevent discrimination against people on the ground of their religion, the Church said the latest version of the Religious Freedom Bills did not get the balance right.

The UCA submission also raised concerns about the implications of the legislation for the Church’s large network of schools and community service agencies.

“As a provider of education and community services across Australia, including hospitals and aged care services, we are concerned certain provisions within these Bills undermine our ability to ensure safe and inclusive workplaces and may act as a barrier to vulnerable people accessing essential services or seeking employment.”

Public submissions on the Second Exposure Drafts closed on 31 January 2020.

Attorney General Christian Porter says submissions will be considered in detail before the legislation is introduced to Parliament, where it will need crossbench support to pass the Senate.

Read the UCA Submission in full.

Speaking at a public forum on the Bills in Sydney on 24 January 2020, President Dr Deidre Palmer said, “it is important that people are able to freely practice religion without fear.”

“Christians of all persuasions enjoy and exercise a robust freedom of speech in Australia. But privileging statements of religious belief at the expense of other people’s dignity and wellbeing is not something we support.”

“Christians in Australia are not persecuted. In Australia, churches aren’t victims. To cultivate some kind of victim status is disingenuous.”

“We are significant, influential organisations, actively contributing in positive ways to the Australian community.

“Uniting Church agencies deliver community services to more than 1.4 million people. Our schools educate hundreds of thousands of students.”

“My understanding of Christian faith and the way of Jesus is that it is about liberation, love and justice for all people.

“These are the positive values I’d like to see reflected when Christians speak about human rights.”

“Whatever the outcome of this legislation, I would hope that both within Australian faith communities and in our wider Australian society, that we would promote respectful conversation among people who have different viewpoints, for the common good of all.”

Read Dr Palmer’s speech in full