Religious freedom laws would undo anti-discrimination laws

After the victory for marriage equality in 2017, religious institutions began a campaign for laws they say are needed to protect ‘religious freedoms’. They saw the resounding win for LGBTIQ+ rights as a blow and they wanted to wind things back on other fronts.

The truth is that religious freedoms are not under any threat. In fact, there already exists many protections for religious freedom in Australia, including special exemptions in some anti-discrimination laws.

But this has not stopped the Morrison government from taking up the cause of the religious right, and pursuing laws that are ultimately discriminatory, in the name of ‘religious freedom’.

Last year a series of bills were introduced to the parliament, which if passed would have weakened protections for women, LGBTIQ+ people and others.

Religious institutions tell us that the laws are needed to protect the rights of people to practice their faith but in reality, they are designed to exclude people and deny services to those who do not agree with their religious beliefs.

Human rights groups, LGBTIQ+ groups, and even some religious groups, have slammed the proposed laws. The main criticism is that the laws have the potential to wind back some of the rights that exist in other anti-discrimination laws.

The proposed religious freedom bills are purposely vague and designed to create loopholes whereby discrimination against minority groups would be made easier.

For example, the original bill included provisions for schools to hire and fire based on religion. You could have a situation where a teacher of Jewish background who worked as an English teacher at a Catholic school could be fired on the basis of being Jewish. This could be regardless of whether they observed Judaism or not.

While the government has been forced to make a number of modifications to the draft bills because of public backlash, the overarching problems with the laws remain.

Even the proposed amended bill would allow for discrimination in sectors such as healthcare. A person’s ability to teach English or perform surgery is not determined by their religion, yet the government wants to deem this as a fireable offence.

An example the government gave of the bill in action was one that would allow a medical practitioner to refuse to prescribe contraception on the basis of their personal religious beliefs. The exception would be if there was an “unjustifiable adverse impact” on the patient.

An example of this would be if this was the only doctor in a small town, and that the only way the patient could seek treatment was to travel significant distances or at a significant cost.

According to the government, on this basis the practitioner would then be required to prescribe the conception. But what constitutes significant time or distance has not specified and could be interpreted in any way.

In real life this would likely result in the patient not having access to the healthcare they need. They would struggle to appeal the decision and the ramifications would be more severe the poorer they were.

Socialists support the right of people to practice religion, but that should not mean that religious intuitions, or people of faith, have special powers or privileges over others. Religious views should not mean that you can discriminate against others who do not share the same outlook.

Any laws seeking to protect an individual’s right to religion should focus on making sure a person cannot be discriminated against or sacked based on their views, but this bill does the opposite.

These proposed bills are divisive, discriminatory and designed to wind back previously won rights. They should be opposed in their entirety.

The best way to push back the government and the religious right is to mobilise all those who have an interest in equal rights and resisting discrimination. LGBTIQ+ groups, the trade unions, migrant groups and others should protest the laws.

This can bring people together, win further public support, and lay the basis for unity against all forms of discrimination and bigotry.

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