A need to reject proposed Australia’s Religious Freedom Legislation.

Not being well this month, and working on other submissions, my own submission to the Exposure Drafts of the Religious Freedom bills for Australia (https://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Pages/religious-freedom-bills-second-exposure-drafts.aspx) was left with little time to prepare and finalise.

Consequently it is a little disjointed, high level, but hopefully conveys the key points.

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31 January 2020

The Hon Christian Porter MP

Attorney-General of Australia
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Via email FoRConsultation@ag.gov.au

Dear Attorney-General,

Re: 2nd Exposure Drafts on Religious Freedom and Associated Legislation

Firstly, I am happy for my submission to be made public and to be placed on the Department’s website.

By way of background, I am a businessman owning and operating a boutique consulting firm, sit on a number of boards, am an educator of company directors, a Christian heavily involved in my denomination at practically every level with a variety of leadership roles, a father of two young adult children and a member of the LGBTIQ community.

It is from all these different perspectives that I have a relatively uncommon perspective, but one that is not unique.

This week, many political leaders around the world, including here in Australia, have been remembering seventy-five years of the closure of Auschwitz as part of the Holocaust.  What most of the media hasn’t reported on outside the horrors of the Jewish Community, is that that same regime rounded up all the homosexuals, Gypsies, disabled and others.  It is estimated that over 15,000 homosexuals ended up in the gas chambers.

Why is this piece of history so important?

We need to understand the significance of othering.  Making minority groups othered and unimportant in a society.

We also need to remember the role of religion, particularly Christianity, that in some areas was complicit in allowing the Holocaust to occur.  Fortunately, some of our greatest theologians come from the concerns, such as Barth and Bonhoeffer, with the latter executed by the Hitler regime.

We also need to recall some of the history of Christianity:

  • Many supported slavery and racism
  • There has been and continues to be, global discovery of child sexual abuse that has been significantly covered up by the churches and in some cases, continues to abuse those people during the investigations and settlements.

UnitingJustice, an agency of the Uniting Church, in their document “Dignity in Humanity – Recognising Christ in Every Person, A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Human Rights, adopted by the Eleventh Assembly July 2006, Resolution 06.20.01”[1] states:

“We must never forget that people who claimed to be Christians and the Christian church itself have been responsible for colluding with and perpetrating violence and oppression. Our history is scarred by greed and fear and so we have, too often, failed in our mission of love. However, there have always been Christians committed to ending violence and poverty and in the last hundred years or so the church has been engaged internationally to this end. In 1937 representatives from churches around the world met to ensure that human rights were included in the United Nations (UN) Charter and the churches went on to play a significant role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

It is interesting to note that during a series of consultations around an earlier concept of a Bill of Human Rights, where there were case studies, many of the Christian Churches strongly objected to this direction.  Of the submissions received to build the case studies, the Uniting Church was rejected because it supported the development of a Bill of Human Rights.

There has been a drive by conservative Christians since the 1970’s to focus on the exclusion and erasure of LGBTIQ people.  However, it is also important to understand that the word homosexual was only introduced in the English translation of the Bible in 1946, and a major research project to be published this year will demonstrate that this was an academic error.

Just as the American Psychological Association determined that being homosexual was a mental illness through poor research (which took years to correct and untold damage to gay people), we are moving into a new time, just as the Churches had to come to a view, that racism and slavery weren’t Biblical in this age; the same will happen with attitudes of the Churches to LGBTIQ people. They will ultimately apologies for the abuse for which they are responsible towards LGBTIQ people, when they finally accept that there is no justifiable position for their rejection of LGBTIQ people. 

In fact, there are those that hold the view that the future evangelists of Christianity will come from the LGBTIQ community. Given that they are also made in the image of God and are one of the many oppressed communities that should Jesus be walking the earth today, he would sit down and spend time with, rather than reject.

The Report of the Expert Panel into Religious Freedom[2] (the Religious Freedom Review) created by the LNP Government commented that Australians whose faiths face persecution overseas appreciate the ‘relative safety that Australia affords people of different faiths’ (para 1.13). Importantly that Report recommended only small additions to Australia’s legislative protection of Australians’ religious freedoms.  Yet what the Government has offered is extreme in nature and moving from the concept of protecting an individual from discrimination, to a new and highly concerning legal structure of protecting a non-natural person (an organisation) from discrimination, and allowing both an individual and organisation unprecedented powers of discrimination against others.

Now coming to the legislation:

Enabling Discrimination

The proposed legislation appears to start from the premise that religious freedom is an absolute right, and one that does not need to be balanced with other human rights.  I would argue that the proposed legislation creates the position that a religious right is superior to all other human rights.  This is clearly untenable, that a choice to hold a faith is superior to the actual existence of a person.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR[3] outlines the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and section 3 of that article says:

“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

The Bill agrees, section 3(2) stating that regard is to be had to ‘the indivisibility and universality of human rights, and their equal status in international law; and the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights’. However, the proposed Bills provided an almost unfettered legislative right to religious freedom, without balancing that with other rights, the Bill divides the right of religious freedom from other rights, and will result in some Australians being less ‘free and equal in dignity’ than others.

Effectively, this Bill creates of system of religious apartheid in Australia. This will form of apartheid will be as destructive to our society as the systems of racial apartheid used in other countries, that Australia has historically been leading global voice to have removed.

Historically, there has been a significant amount of discrimination built into legislation in Australia, much of which has permitted discrimination against LGBTIQ people.  As a minority group, the LGBTIQ community has had to work very hard over long periods of time to gradually have discrimination against them removed.  However, it has been the trend of legislators over recent years to remove unreasonable discrimination enabled by law.

Some of these have been hard fought, as we saw with the national postal survey and parliamentary process to remove discrimination in marriage; the first time in Australia’s history where a human rights matter has been put to the people where Parliament could have acted, as it should have.

In the lead up to the Wentworth by-election in 2018, the Prime Minister promised to remove discrimination against LGBTIQ students in schools and has failed on that commitment and moved and delayed the matter for additional consultation.

This proposed legislation will enable a dramatic increase in discrimination in Australia.  Much of the activities where discrimination will occur will actually be funded by the Australian taxpayer, which is completely unacceptable.

In welfare services, there is no justification for discrimination of employment, while it is reasonable to ask staff to be supportive of the ethos of the organisation.  The concept of supportive of the ethos should not be used however to restrict employment of LGBTIQ people, people in same sex relationship/marriages, people of particular gender.  The only area where such as exception may be reasonable, is in the area of formal appointment of ministers of religion, such as Chaplains at schools, hospitals, aged care facilities etc, and to some extent members of an organisation’s governing body.  These limited exceptions must be significantly controlled and transparently justified.

To that extent, rather than providing additional rights for discrimination in employment, the Government should work to reduce discrimination.  There is no justifiable reason for a school to be exempt from hiring a maths teacher because they may be LGBTIQ.  Years ago, churches would have said they should be allowed not to hire a disabled person because their disability is a sign of sinfulness.  We all know that is not right, so why do we allow such injustice to LGBTIQ people now?

There is no justification to allow people who hold a religious faith to be abusive to other people outside of their religious setting, such as a taxi driver being abusive to a lesbian couple in their taxi, or a school teacher telling a divorced father looking after their kids that he is sinful as a divorcee, or a manager emailing a staff member that being transgender is not acceptable in the eyes of God.

Some of these would breach any reasonable employer code of conduct today, so why should these be acceptable in the future?

Why is it acceptable for a religious person to intimidate another person, when this is not acceptable for any other citizen?

Professional Bodies/Commercial Limitations

I am currently involved in a number of professional bodies and have been involved with more in the past.

Over time, there has been an increasing acceptance that it is not appropriate to bring private religious material that could bring discomfort or harm to other people into a professional setting, ie that have no bearing on the matter at hand.

This Bill will unwind many years of advancing of good professional practice.

The notes with the Bills provide an example of how a doctor can legally comment in a derogatory manner towards a transgender patient.  There is no justification in a clinical setting for such comments to be made in the first place.

Access to health for many people is already difficult, and the proposed legislation will make access to health for women, disabled people, LGBTIQ people significantly more difficult and put their physical and mental health at risk.

On one hand the Government is attempting to dramatically improve the mental and physical health of people in Australia, yet on the other hand, groups that are dependent on high health care are increasingly at risk of inappropriate treatment, if they will be able to get it at all.

There are no religious grounds for this dangerous expansion of the removal of health services, particularly to vulnerable Australians.

This Government has prided itself on getting out of the way of business, however, through these Bills, wants to interfere in business and ensuring safe workplaces and maintenance of their brands in society.  I note that the Government continues to give rights around codes of conducts and outside activities that it is now denying the private sector.

The dangers of some conservative religion are being shown as states around Australia are working on legislation to outlaw conversion therapy because of its dangers (such acts are being supported by the majority or relevant professional health associations because of their dangers).  Religious schools are fighting to retain the right to send children to conversion therapy.  Just as they denied sexually abusing children, they want the right to mentally abuse children through programs that at best leave long term mental health issues or at worst case, suicide.

Nature of Discrimination Acts

Discrimination Acts by their nature are to protect the individual, however, for the first time, these Bills will provide protection and the right to discrimination by religious organisations.  This is not consistent with the standard of these types of Acts and is not acceptable.

Overriding Other Jurisdictions

There is no justification for these Bills to override some Tasmanian Laws, or to allow religious people to not comply with Local Council regulations with which other citizens need to comply.

Other Matters

There is no requirement for a Religious Discrimination Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, as the Ruddock Inquiry indicated there is little risk for religious people and organisations in Australia.  What there is a need for, is an LGBTIQ Commissioner as there is a long history of violence and discrimination towards LGBTIQ people.  Much of this discrimination supported by many religious organisations.

While there has been an attempt to correct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spiritually via notes to the bill, I remain unconvinced this issue has been appropriately addressed, and once again Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be disadvantaged and subject to further discrimination.

Summary

This proposed legislation is some of the most dangerous legislation in recent Australian legislative history.

It creates a level of differing rights and standards between different classes of Australian citizens and organisations.

It is unnecessarily complex.

It lacks reasonable definitions and tests.

It reverses the rightful trend of Australian parliaments to reduce discrimination and to improve protections for minorities in favour of creating a system of systematic discrimination against large sectors of Australia’s society, and targets some of the most vulnerable minorities in Australia.

It is without a doubt a system of religious segregation that is no better than race-based apartheid which Australia has been a global leader fighting against.

Rather than moving Australia together as a cohesive society, this will pit Australian against Australian and create disharmony among so many.

Rather than assist with the ongoing improvement in the health and well-being of Australians, this will have a direct and negative impact on the health of many.

If religious organisations can convince the Government that they need the right to discriminate, then they should not receive any taxpayer funding.  Likewise, if health professionals want to discriminate against patients, they should not have access to Medicare funding at all and should seek to only have patients who are willing to consult with them outside of the Medicare system.  Their Medicare biller code can then be reallocated to doctors who are willing to serve all the public.

Accordingly, I have no option but to call on the Government to abandon this legislative strategy and recommence with a Human Rights Bill that seeks to balance competing human rights.  When balancing competing human rights, it seems to me that the innate nature of a person, such as their race, gender, sexual orientation etc is a is given a higher order than their rights from areas of choices, such a religion.

These exposure bills are an abject failure in balancing human rights.  They virtually guarantee that religious rights (the rights from a personal choice) are always held above all other human rights (those that are innate about a person).

The only way forward is the creation of an effective Human Rights Bill.

I would be more than happy to discuss my submission with you.

Yours sincerely

Jason Masters


[1] https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/human-rights/uca-statements/item/download/111_40d235aeb99ba1eb6e46503f5490416d (sourced 30 January 2020), page 7

[2] https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/HumanRights/Documents/religious-freedom-review-expert-panel-report-2018.pdf (Sourced 30 January2020), page 10

[3] https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx (sourced 30 January 2020)

Submission on the Exposure Drafts for Religious Freedom and Associated Legislation

2 October 2019

The Hon Christian Porter MP
Attorney-General of Australia
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Via email FoRConsultation@ag.gov.au

Dear Attorney General,

Re: Exposure Drafts on Religious Freedom and Associated Legislation

As a Christian and a gay man, I wish to record my concerns around the proposed bills to enact anti-religious discrimination laws.

In the first instance, I do wish to record that I support the principle of religious discrimination laws, those that are intended to protect individuals who hold a religious belief.

However, while there are elements of a traditional non-discrimination bill in the proposed Acts, the bills go considerably further and consequently create a real and present danger not only to the LGBTIQ community but also to women, single parents and potentially people with disabilities.

It is important for the Attorney General to remember that religion has been used to:

  • Justify slavery;
  • Discriminate against women;
  • Support discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and
  • Obtain legislation to positively discriminate against LGBTIQ people, as examples.

In preparing to make this submission, I have had the opportunity to read some early submissions that have been made public, and I support the principles outlined in those submissions, particularly:

  • Australian Human Right Commission;
  • Associate Luke Beck, Associate Professor, Monash University, Faculty of Law;
  • Equal Voices; and
  • Uniting Network.

Conceptually, the Acts intention are to provide a shield rather than a sword, but due to the unusual nature of the drafting of the bills, compared with more traditional discrimination law, there are significant and dangerous elements within them, very much more sword than a shield.

Rather than necessarily repeating what these organisations have said in their submissions, I will summarise my thoughts:

  1. The proposed legislation is complicated with significant interaction with many other pieces of legislation, both Federally and State/Territories.  It appears that outside of the religious organisations, there was minimal consultation with other communities, including the LGBTIQ communities around the construct and drafting principles of these bills.  Approximately 5 weeks for people and organisations to digest and respond to the consultation is not reasonable.

    It is my opinion that there needs to be a real, significant and constructive consultation with all communities, particularly those that will be negatively impacted by this legislation, so that balance and proportionality around competing rights can be managed.

  2. Unfortunately, that the Government is rushing the development and plans to implement what is effectively a “religious privileges” bill.  However it has not used this as an opportunity to either develop a universal bill of rights for all Australians or review all discrimination bills, and add a religious discrimination bill that are all consistent with their model of operation.

    Additionally, it seems illogical to present these bills, when the Government has requested the Australian Law Reform Commission to undertake a review and provide advice in relation to specific areas of religious privilege and discrimination rights.  These should all be considered concurrently to ensure an appropriate balance is reached.

  3. The proposed amendment to the Marriage Act through the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religious Bill) section is not required and should be removed.

  4. The objectives of the Act need to be constrained to ensure that people who hold religious beliefs do not have a legislative benefit over those that do not hold any religious beliefs.  Further, the objectives should be modified to ensure that religious freedoms granted to an organization or person, do not enable those organisations or people to have a positive right to discriminate against other people.

  5. The clauses on indirect discrimination are problematic and could lead to unintended negative consequences towards whole classes of Australian citizens, including but not limited to unmarried mothers, disabled people (where a religious group’s faith is that a disability is caused from sin), LGBTIQ people etc.  It is my opinion that clauses 8(3) and 8(4) should be deleted.  If the Government is not willing to delete those clauses, then a broader range of terminologies should be included as protections against religious abuse, using times in other discrimination laws such as that would, or is likely to, offend, insult, humiliate, harass, vilify or incite hatred or violence against another person or group of persons”

    As a business owner, there is a balance between people’s rights and that of the organisation’s values, it appears the draft Act dramatically sways that balance inappropriately.  Accordingly, Clause 31(6) should be deleted due to the significant potential for unintended consequences.

  6. The health of LGBTIQ people is something that the Government has recognised, with the welcome commitment for additional funding for LGBTIQ mental health services.   It is worthwhile noting that the mental health of the community is currently at a worse position than through the Marriage Equality campaign, and I expect that this current legislative framework and the associated process is not assisting the community.

    The LGBTIQ community do have issues with many health providers already, who are either uninformed about health issues for the LGBTIQ community, or are hostile towards the community potentially breaching their health profession’s practice codes.

    The clauses concerning Health Professionals are dangerous and will lead to further access issues to effective health services by LGBTIQ people.

    Additionally, other people such as women, unmarried mothers, etc. could find themselves being rejected for services by health professionals based on this legislation.

    Concerningly, there is a risk, that this legislation could override the health professional bodies code of good health practice, negatively impacting the health regulatory framework in Australia.

    Accordingly, I recommend that Clauses 8(5) and (6) be removed from the bill.  If the government is unwilling to remove those, then I believe it is essential that there be additional requirements in the Act for the practitioners to notify patients when making bookings (as well as on any advertising, web pages etc. promoting their services) around any limitations that have in their practice due for religious requirements.  That practitioners must provide a reasonable referral to another practitioner (within reasonable distance for that particular patient and their circumstances).  They must provide all services (including those they object to on religious grounds) if necessary, to preserve the life of the person or to prevent any significant harm.  The related clause 31(7) should also be deleted.

  7. Clause 10 should be removed as discrimination laws relate to a human being and not to a body corporate, and this is a unique and dangerous addition, outside the tradition of discrimination legislation.  For LGBTIQ people, this raises real and significant risks in relation to religious processes such as gay conversion therapy (in its many forms) that have real and damaging impacts on LGBTIQ people, and the lower end being long term significant mental health issues through to suicide.

  8. Clause 18 created inconsistency in the way discrimination Acts operate in Australia and will permit ongoing discrimination of LGBTIQ students as an example.  Given the Prime Minister has also made a commitment to end discrimination against LGBTIQ students in non-government schools, this clause should be deleted.

  9. Clause 27 is unclear of its intent and outcomes so requires considerably more consultation and review.

  10. There is no justification for the Federal Government to override State and Territory Laws in the area of religious discrimination and as a principle clause 41 should be removed.  Importantly the arguments presented on why this clause is required, often referred to as the Porteous Clause is based on false and misleading information.  In any count, the construction of this clause means that States and Territories can readily bring this clause to nil-effect.

  11. The Ruddock Inquiry did not identify any real religious discrimination in Australia, which make moot the underlying reason and urgency of this legislation.  When other areas of the community are suffering through lack of resources, it seems rather wasteful to create a new role in the Australian Human Rights Commission to support and area of discrimination where there is little to none.

    Therefore clauses 45 – 53 should be deleted.  I note however that the Prime Minister did make this as an election promise, so if the Government wishes to proceed with this role, it should also create an LGBTIQ+ Commissioner, which is a community that has been the recipient of long term and significant discrimination in Australia (and globally).  This would allow the AHRC to have informed Commissioners representing the competing rights of individuals.  I would so also wish to clearly state that the rights of a person due to their existence (ie being a woman, being disabled, being LGBTIQ), should always be superior to that of a belief or choice.

  12. Australia has a history of separation of various arms of running the country fairly, and whilst there are times when a Minister ought to have some discretions, there are no demonstrated reasons why the Minister (Attorney General) should have the right to vary or revoke exemptions under this Act.  Accordingly, Clause 39 should be amended to remove that right.

In summary, the proposed legislation does not meet the objectives that you, as Attorney General stated, of it being a shield and not a sword.  It will expand on the already extraordinary legislative religious privilege that religious organisations have in Australia.  This drafting has moved from traditional discrimination legislation to a sword that will embolden religious communities against LGBTIQ people as has been their target for many years, but also women, unmarried people, people in de facto relationships, people of other faiths, cultures, ethnicities and disabilities.  In summary, this is hazardous legislation and will, without a doubt, reduce social cohesion within Australian.

Yours sincerely,

Why Women Should Be Concerned by the Religious Freedom Push

By the age of 9 I was struggling at my local public school, and my parents, a railway clerk and dressmaker decided that I needed to be moved to one of the local private schools, at a huge sacrifice to themselves, for which I am forever grateful.

By grade 5, I started at Westminster School in Adelaide and received the educational and pastoral care I needed to get me through schooling and on to university.

During my high schooling, as Dad has finally become a junior manager towards the end of his working career, there was an opportunity for him to take a significant promotion, moving to Broken Hill.  This was only the middle of the 1970’s, but in the end they could not.  I would have needed to be moved into the boarding house, at significant extra cost, but as mum was married, she would not have been able to work in Broken Hill and reverting to one income make the move not financially sustainable.

Religion and women have always had a challenging place, particularly as more religions are run and managed by men.

As a Christian man, I am grateful that I am a member of the Uniting Church, that has recognised that women to have a leadership role in the Christian tradition, and currently our national President is a Women, and now living in NSW, our General Secretary is a woman.

There is currently a major debate underway in Australia around the need for religious discrimination law or religious freedom laws, which I prefer to call religious privilege laws.

The push for these laws is a continued push back from conservative religious elements from the marriage equality laws, and more recently from the dismissal of Israel Folau from Rugby Australia over his infamous comments about amongst other things that homosexuals will end up in hell.

Many religious organisation want to continue with their existing legal right to be able to exclude LGBTIQ kids from their schools (which are significantly funded by the secular society), and to sack teachers of mathematics, English, or office staff and gardeners who are LGBTIQ even though they may make no comments around their orientation in their workplace environment.  As a gay Christian I do find this very distasteful, as it seems to go against the principle teaching of Jesus, the central person of the Christian faith, who brought the faith down to two key principles, Love God, Love one another, with no * with a list of exclusions at the bottom of the page.

The conservative Christian leaders in my mind are currently focusing on LGBTIQ people, because they are at the margins of society, don’t really affect people in the mainstream, and unfortunately many people in the broader society think that now there is secular marriage equality, all issues of LGBTIQ equality have been solved, which unfortunately is not the case, schools is but one example.

Unfortunately, the LGBTIQ community is exhausted from the marriage equality debate, we don’t have a lot of resources, which plays nicely into the timing of the Government and conservative religious organisations.

So why should women be worried about religious freedom?

In an article by Dr Kevin Donnellyof the Australian Catholic University, in “The Catholic Weekly, the Melbourne Archbishop is quoted with a section, “Based on natural law and the inherently moral and spiritual truth evidenced by religious faith Bradley [a Law Professor at Notre Dame University in the USA – another Catholic institution], as does Sydney’s Archbishop Fisher, argues religious freedom should be treated as a positive right essential to human flourishing.”

I contend that the push for positive rights by the conservative Christian groups, currently focused at the LGBTIQ community, is the back door entry point to then work on reversing women’s rights that have been won, but really only over the last century.

So where could this positive religious freedom go in relation to women, a church could if they wished say that within the tenants of their faith

  • Women could not be Principles of Schools as women can not be superior to men.
  • Women may be denied the opportunity to teach high schools classes as boys have moved to men and women can not teach men.
  • Should it be found out that a women has had an abortion they could be removed from any role.
  • Women could be limited to nursing in hospital as that is the role of a women and not a doctor.
  • Women could not be the head of any religious organisation as women can not be superior to men
  • Women when they are married need to leave their jobs as their role is to nurture their family.

It is only in the mid 1970’s that my father could not take on a promotion because my mother would not be able to work.  That was an unwritten secular rule, but those within faith communities can develop old rules that could once again be used to roll back women’s rights.

The above list might be seen by some as extreme, but they were in existence not that long ago.

The pushback on LGBTIQ people by some communities of faith is the trogon horse some religious leaders are looking for.