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Canberra
Monday, November 30, 2020

Religious freedom now a political football

In the face of severe backlash from religious conservatives in the Liberal Party after the same sex marriage plebiscite, Malcolm Turnbull established an inquiry into religious freedom. It was headed by former Liberal Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock.

It found that freedom of religion is alive and well in this country. There was no impediment to people worshipping how and when they liked, nor were they prevented from preaching their beliefs.

In fact, already private schools could hire and fire people on the basis of the school’s religious doctrines. Private hospitals could refuse abortions or sterilisations for the same reason – even though in both cases the taxpayers of Australia, a majority of whom do not accept those views, largely fund these institutions.

Many Australians at the time of the Wentworth by-election were shocked to find that religious private schools can expel kids simply because they are gay. Prime Minister Morrison promised to legislate away this exemption to anti-discrimination laws. He failed to do it on his original timeframe and is waiting on the Law Reform Commission to give him advice on how to do it.

Morrison’s tardiness is no doubt due to the internal conflict within the government, still raging despite the departure of Turnbull. A taste of it comes from Liberal Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells. Last week after Attorney-General Christian Porter released a draft Religious Discrimination Bill, she slammed it. It does not go far enough for her or some high profile church leaders. She is warning Morrison to prepare for a backlash if these Archbishops and others advise their congregations accordingly.

Fierravanti-Wells claims many of “the quiet Australians” who voted for the Coalition did so “on the expectation we would protect religious freedom”. This is more over-reach from the right. Some of the biggest votes for same sex marriage were in Liberal electorates. An overwhelming majority nationally 61.6% voted yes. And according to the last census, the number of Australians identifying as Christian shrank to 52%, a continuing downward trend.

When you consider that just over 80% of all weddings in Australia are performed by civil celebrants, the “quiet Australians” are voting with their feet. They are certainly walking away from increasingly unpopular discriminatory views.

Morrison and Porter get this. While their draft bill is being attacked by  their own conservatives, legal academics say it is a mess and needs many amendments because it goes too far facilitating discrimination and even vilification, particularly of gays and other LGBTIQ+ people.

The Opposition is calling for much wider consultation before the draft bill is voted on. Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus QC, says while the government wants bi-partisan support it has not consulted with Labor nor the LGBTIQ+ community.

Dreyfus says “Labor will be consulting deeply and widely, which is what the government should be doing, too”. Labor, he says, is pre-disposed to support any bill that protects religious freedom but is wary of unintended consequences.

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