Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter launched the updated version of their religious discrimination legislation last week as the real hell fires burned around them.
But the new version is no better and no less illogical as the original. It, too, goes well beyond what is needed or justified.
Porter asserts that the freedom of religion legislation fills a gap.
His explanatory memorandum says: “Existing federal anti-discrimination legislation advances the rights to equality and non-discrimination for a wide variety of attributes. However, current protections in Commonwealth, state and territory laws for discrimination on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity are piecemeal, have limited application and are inconsistent across jurisdictions.”
Well, the solution here would be just to add the words “religious belief” in the Race Discrimination Act, so that people denied employment, rental accommodation and so on because of their religion would be able to get redress. They would have a shield against other people’s harmful actions.
The discrimination legislation on race, colour, sexuality, age and disability is framed to prevent harmful actions or words against people with those attributes. It is there to make other people think twice before uttering their words or taking their discriminatory actions. It gives the protected people a shield.
There is no harm in adding religion to that list, as most state and territory jurisdictions have already done.
But this legislation goes a lot further.
It enables people, in the name of their religion, to make utterances and take action which would harm others and otherwise be illegal. It seeks protect employers who in the name of their professed religion deny other people employment or terminate their employment because those people do not practise the professed religion.
It empowers people to engage in religious discrimination under the guise of “protecting” those people from religious discrimination.
Someone sacked from XYZ Church school or hospital because they practise ABC religion or no religion should surely be able to argue they had been discriminated against on the ground of their religious beliefs and should be able to get redress in the same way that someone racially discriminated against can.
But under this legislation there is a defence to this religious discrimination. The defence is that to provide redress for that religious discrimination would itself be religious discrimination.
It is utterly illogical and self-contradictory.
Further, the legislation similarly protects the utterances of people done in the name of their religion which could be harmful to others.
Racially and sexually discriminatory utterances in the name of religion would be protected because to provide redress would itself be religious discrimination.
It only makes sense if you put religion on a pedestal and allow people exercising their religion to take actions or make utterances that would harm others and otherwise be unlawful. In other words, the exercise of religion is more important than the rights of others not to be discriminated against.
It arms the religious people allegedly being protected with a sword. It emboldens them not to think twice but to make the utterances or take action in the name of their religion which could be harmful to others.
Religion should not be put on such a pedestal because religion is a construction and can be acquired or dropped by an act of free will, whereas people are born with their race, skin colour and sexuality and have to live with it. People become old or disabled (or are born disabled) and they have to live with it.
All said, once you have freedom of speech and assembly, there is enough freedom for people to practise their religions within the usual limits of free speech and assembly. And once you add “religion” to Federal anti-discrimination law, there is no need to go any further. To do so would allow dangerous and harmful discrimination in the name of preventing religious discrimination.
It would be a grant of excessive religious licence.
Bear in mind the licence is going to be given to organisations that receive a lot of public money. Whoever you invite or employ in your private home or private club is your own business, but once you take public money or offer your goods and services to the public at large, a different standard applies – a standard of decency and fairness, not of bigotry and hatred.
The unnecessary nature of this legislation was well shown byClaire Victory, the national president of the St Vincent de Paul Society, who said her society “does not require employees and volunteers working in the society’s commercial activities to be Catholic”.
What is good enough for Vinnies should be good enough for all.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 21 December 2019.