David Purnell, Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee
The following is a summary of the Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee submission to the Religious Discrimination Bill, the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill. The full submission can be seen on the Yearly Meeting website.
We are part of a global organisation (the Religious Society of Friends) that is culturally and theologically diverse, and places a strong value upon spiritual freedom of individuals within the group. Over the years Quakers have worked for the freedom of slaves, the equality of women, the rights of LGBTIQ people and all races, the resolution of conflict by nonviolent means, the right of conscientious objection to military service, and the need for a life of simplicity that is in harmony with our environment.
We support the principles of religious freedom embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and international human rights conventions. We also endorse Section 116 of the Australian Constitution that prevents the establishment or imposition of any religion, or a religious test for public office.
We consider that over the past decades, humanity has made progress in the protection of human rights internationally and domestically, and we seek to maintain that progress through mutual respect, dialogue and acceptance, rather than creating exemptions that could reverse that trend. In the Australian context, we believe that a Charter of Rights consistent with international norms would be the best way to fill current gaps and underpin comprehensive protection of religious freedom along with all other human rights and freedoms.
We welcome the draft legislation as offering a framework for national dialogue on the standards appropriate to encourage mutual respect for different beliefs. We are concerned that the proposed legislation gives a special priority to religious freedom and is likely to conflict with existing human rights and anti-discrimination laws. In addition there seems to be a conflation between the rights of individuals and the rights of organisations to discriminate. Under established human rights regimes it is clear that only individuals have such rights.
We are relieved that the legislation is grounded in anti-discrimination law instead of religious rights philosophy. In this respect the Bill reflects existing anti-discrimination laws in the states and territories. However, it grants religious bodies the power to discriminate in hiring staff, but no such provision is available to commercial organisations. The provision that someone cannot be said to discriminate merely for expressing a genuinely held belief seems designed to prevent an employer putting any restriction on an employee such as Israel Folau (even though the public service is being treated more strictly).
The definition of a “relevant employer” specifies a turnover of $50m, apparently on the assumption that large employers set the standard for businesses generally. Apart from $50m being an arbitrary figure and the test being hard to meet, it also ignores the reputational or other non-financial damage that may be incurred (e.g. through social media).
There is reference to health practitioners being able to object to offering a service on the grounds of their religious belief/activity. It should be made clear that, alongside this right, there should be a provision that the practitioner has the obligation to refer the patient to a health care practitioner who can provide the service.
The legislation provides for the creation of a new position of Freedom of Religion Commissioner. We are not convinced of the need for such a position, given the powers already available to the Human Rights Commission.
The legislation amends the Marriage Act 1961 to allow educational institutions established for religious purposes to refuse to make facilities available or provide goods and services in relation to the holding of a marriage service/ceremony. This will have an adverse impact especially on LGBTIQ people who seek a marriage ceremony under the care of a group like Quakers. Quakers have long held that marriage “is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses”. We believe that the 2017 legislation was a step forward in recognising the equal rights of everyone, and we consider that the new legislation gives too much leeway for exemptions from according equal rights.
We would be concerned if Quakers’ advocacy of equal marriage rights for LGBTIQ people were to raise questions about the charitable status of a Quaker organisation. To avoid privileging the views of some faith communities and people over others, the legislation would be better worded to say that ‘To avoid doubt, the purpose of engaging in, or promoting, activities that support a particular view of marriage is not, of itself, a disqualifying purpose’.
In our view, the development of the international human rights framework has largely been the result of active contributions from faith communities. The proposed legislation will correct some of the gaps in the recognition of freedom of religion or belief. We consider it would benefit from more extensive public conversation/consultation, and from the input of the law reform commission’s separate investigation.
There remains considerable ignorance about the different faiths and beliefs represented in the Australian community. We see merit in the proposal from Religions for Peace Australia for setting up a National Centre for Multiculturalism and Religious Diversity to educate citizens and strengthen Australia’s multicultural life and social cohesion.