Wies Schuiringa, New South Wales Regional Meeting

By the time you read this article, Australia may have a Religious Discrimination Act, or not. Australia Yearly Meeting made a submission about the draft Act that is summarised by David Purnell in an article in this edition. The full submission is on the Australia Yearly Meeting website.

I am a board member on the NSW Ecumenical Council, and the Council made a submission about Religious Freedom to the Federal Attorney’s Office before the draft Act was released for comment. However, the Council’s argument remains the same: people of religion and their institutions should not be granted greater rights and freedoms than exist in other anti-discrimination legislation in the country. The Church does not exist to serve and protect ourselves, we are here to serve society. The proposed Act protects the right to express genuinely held religious views that will override existing anti-discrimination acts. It has a large section on employment-related discrimination that I found complicated and has been described by others as the “Israel Folau” clause that protects the expression of “genuinely held religious beliefs” in employment-related circumstances, as he did. It all becomes more complex as the Israel Folau case will be heard in early 2020. Another complicating factor is the report by the Law Reform Commission to be published in late 2020 about religious schools and their students and employment policies. This report was commissioned in response to the Ruddock report, published in May 2019 on religious freedom.

As has been mentioned regularly in the media, this proposed Act seems to be in response to the same-sex legislation that was passed in November 2017, much to the shock of more conservative people of faith. A new organisation has since been formed: “Freedom for Faith” that seeks to represent the more socially conservative Churches and it has a well-resourced website.

Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby wrote an article for the Law Society about the proposed Act that is quoted in an article in the Guardian Australia on 11 November 2019. Michael Kirby is quoted: “existing discrimination law enacts the principle that ‘the right to swing my arm ends when I hit another’s chin’”, which is “now … being dismantled to give a free go to the religious arm swingers”.

On behalf of the NSW Ecumenical Council I attended a consultation with the Attorney General Christian Porter and with Labor politician Chris Bowen in the Western Sydney seat of McMahon. I also attended the live recording of the interview by Andrew West with Philip Ruddock at the Anglican Church in Burwood, Sydney, that was broadcast on the Religion and Ethics report on ABC RN. All these occasions were fascinating. The consultation with the Attorney General was dominated by representatives from “Freedom for Faith”. They were very well prepared with a law professor and senior Anglican representation, pointing out lack of clarity in defining “religion” and “genuinely held belief”, among other disquiet in the proposed Act. Chris Bowen organised a consultation with local clergy as he has said publicly that the Labor Party had not listened enough to people of faith in Western Sydney after Labor lost in the last federal election. It was interesting that the local clergy at this meeting had not read the proposed Act and wanted to talk about feeling under siege as clergy, distressed about the same-sex marriage legislation, “the State” restricting religious freedom and increasing secularisation.

Philip Ruddock re-iterated sections of his report into Religious Freedom, made public in May 2019 that his enquiry found very little actual religious oppression or discrimination in Australia. His enquiry received more than 15,000 submissions and more that 250 meetings were held around the country. The report is online.

In the meantime, business councils have gone public stating that the proposed Act is addressing a problem that rarely exists in the workplace and the proposed Act is too complex. Legal bodies have also expressed concerns that the proposed Act does not fit into existing discrimination legislation.

Members of the New South Wales Ecumenical Council

However, Chris Bowen emphasised that people should talk with their local member of Parliament if they have concerns about the proposed Act. The Liberal/National government have the votes in the Lower House, and the cross bench in the Senate could be swayed to vote for it.

The proposed Act and the subsequent discussions I have participated in represent the changing role of institutionalised religion in the Australian society: increasing secularisation and the decrease in the authority of the churches, especially after the Royal Commission which creates great anxiety in more conservative faith communities that legislation is restricting the public expression of genuinely held beliefs. The draft Religious Discrimination Act attempts to counter this perceived religious oppression, however to quote Michael Kirby, is it a “free go to the religious arm swingers”?


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