Having read the latest draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill, the Amendments made since the first draft, and rights groups/media reports on it, it is safe to say that the intent of this Bill is not to defend religious people against discrimination. Instead, it is a Bill designed to defend religious individuals and bodies in their own discrimination against others, using religion as a shield to do so. I will refer to Christianity/Catholicism in most examples, given they are the majority and are certainly the intended beneficiaries of this Bill.
Provision of Healthcare
The first thing that comes to mind when you link discussions of healthcare with religion is the topic of abortion, an area that neither the Church nor the State should have any influence in. I have written before that the opposition to legal, safe abortions is nothing more than an oppressive method of control over women, using religion as a false moral high ground. While this Bill doesn’t negate or necessarily attack the State and Territory legislation in place that legalises the procedure, it does allow health practitioners to refuse carrying it out.
Abortion isn’t the only healthcare matter that is affected here. This opens the floodgates to denying adequate and required healthcare to LGBT+ people, as well as allowing objections to assisted dying, all on the basis of religion.
The Bill says:
“[A] health practitioner conscientiously objects to providing or participating in a particular kind of health service if:
(a) the health practitioner refuses to provide, or participate in, that kind of health service on the ground of his or her religious belief or activity.”
In Part 2, Section 8, it further adds that it would count as discrimination if a health practitioner is prevented:
“from lawfully conscientiously objecting to providing or participating in a particular kind of health service pursuant to a State or Territory law that provides for such an exercise of conscientious objection”.
This essentially means that even if by State/Territory law a certain health service is legal, it would be discrimination (against religious beliefs) to stop a practitioner from “conscientiously” rejecting services they personally deem inappropriate.
“However, this provision does not have the effect of allowing a health practitioner to decline to provide a particular kind of health service, or health services generally, to particular people or groups of people.”
The problem with this little addition is that it does, in fact, target particular people. They use the example of providing contraception to single women to explain how this Bill cannot be used to discriminate against women themselves, as described under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. As abortion and other healthcare services aren’t prescribed in Federal law, but are in fact State/Territory concerns, this Federal Bill goes over them – so much for “less government”.
One of the amendments clarifies that any “objection must be to a procedure, not a person.” But “conscientiously objecting” to carry out abortions only affects women. Refusing to provide health services specific to LGBT+ people only affects LGBT+ people. No matter how many times they attempt to paint this as anti-discrimination for religion, the implications are directly discriminatory against specific groups of people that, historically, have been oppressed by both Church and State.
Here you get into a murky situation, because while objecting to carry out certain health services or procedures is quite explicitly discriminatory, should the State be allowed to force people to do things that they do not wish to do, for whatever reason, including religion? I would hesitantly say yes for a few reasons. Firstly, if you are a health practitioner, your duty is to your patients. Your private religious convictions do not override the basic human right that is the adequate provision of healthcare. You should be able to separate a private belief system from the job you are doing in such an important sector. Secondly, the procedures most commonly cited disproportionately discriminate against women and minorities, implying that religion may be a nice cover, but that there are (consciously or not) deeper, more malicious convictions at play.
Ideally, such discrimination against women and minorities would not exist, and health practitioners should make that decision without the need for State intervention. The world in which we live is not a kind place.
Employment will be mentioned down below, but there was one curious point about employment agencies that I thought was worth mentioning here. Section 32 says:
“(5) Section 18 (about employment agencies) does not make it unlawful for an employment agency to discriminate against a person, on the ground of the person’s religious belief or activity, if the person is unable to carry out the inherent requirements of the work sought because of the person’s religious belief or activity.”
Would this therefore imply that, if a health practitioner looking for work will, on religious grounds, not carry out certain procedures (i.e. do their bloody job), does that mean employment agencies can refuse them certain positions lawfully? I’m being a bit facetious here, but it’s an interesting idea. One that I am sure they did not intend.
Lastly, the Bill also leaves the “burden of proof” regarding “reasonableness” to the one seeking the service:
“[T]he person who imposes, or proposes to impose, the condition, requirement or practice has the burden of proving that the condition, requirement or practice is reasonable.”
So an individual who has made a decision, whether it’s an abortion, assisted dying, LGBT+ related, etc. etc. would therefore be required to prove, against another individual’s private religious convictions, that their request is “reasonable”. How can one “prove” that their right to adequate healthcare is “reasonable” in a Bill designed specifically to be unreasonable regarding these circumstances?
Further, if the case goes to court (this applies to all cases, but even more troubling here) then the final judgement may not even be from the court itself, but instead to religious bodies:
“courts will not be involved in deciding what the doctrines of a particular religion require.”
Both the individual seeking a medical service and the courts must therefore prove to a religious body that the service in question is “reasonable”. That, to me, is scary – giving religious bodies the right to use their doctrines in place of the law and the courts.
Religious Bodies Acting According to Faith
This covered a large range of areas, from employment and education to accommodation or charities. It is here where a number of the contradictions come into play, fighting against discrimination towards religious beliefs, but giving a free pass to religious bodies to do exactly that.
Religious bodies (including charities with commercial activities) can “[give] preference to persons of the same religion as the religious body,” something added in the new Draft. This seems eerily similar to the government’s stance on refugees, giving preference to white South African farmers or Christian Syrians over those we have left languishing in Nauru and Manus. For the majority of organisations – i.e., any organisation that is not explicitly religious in purpose, like an actual church on church matters – giving preference to any demographic is generally seen a discrimination.
When it comes to charity groups with religious roots, the idea seems absurd. Taking the Syria example, that you would focus on the security and safety of a minority demographic at the expense of working to provide security and safety to all people is wrong. Yet that is what this Bill seems to imply. What about a homelessness charity, or an education charity providing for struggling schools and students? Say a Christian charity provided services to those groups – do they have the right to give preference to Christian homeless and students? If so, that is a pathetic stance built solely upon “feeling good” for helping your own, rather than doing good for the sake of doing good.
Education and Employment
Under this Bill, it would be discrimination to reject a prospective employee or to wrongly treat or fire a current employee due to their religious beliefs – as it already is. Similar treatment to prospective or current students at a educational institution is also considered, rightly, discrimination. But again, add religion into the equation and preferences can be made.
A religious school can give preference to prospective students of the same religion, and according to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre it could also be used to disadvantage or remove students who, during the course of their education, renounce their faith. Education, like healthcare, should be viewed as a human right and should most certainly not be connected in any way to profiteering or religion (most religious schools are private, so thoughts and prayers to the privileged darlings).
That being said, to deny or expel a student on the basis of their religion, even in a religious school, is wrong. To expel a student from their school for renouncing their faith is also wrong, as it could very well have adverse effects on their mental and social wellbeing.
As for employment, the same preferential treatment exists – but only for religious bodies. Taking the school example further, a prospective employee, regardless of their character and qualifications, can be rejected in favour of another solely on the basis of religion. A Catholic school can preference a Catholic over an agnostic or atheistic teacher, a factor that, unless they were to teach Religious Education, is quite irrelevant to their capacity in the role. That is discrimination hiding behind religion in an educational institution.
Access to Premises
The Bill also states it is unlawful to deny access to a premises based on religion. For example, a business could not deny a Church function on the basis that it is a religious group booking it. Exceptions again go the other way, however, with the same line about preferencing people and groups of the same religion. A religious camp or conference can “take faith into account when deciding whether to provide accommodation”, implying service could be denied if the individual or group in question does not share the same religion.
Statements of Belief
“Statements of belief do not constitute discrimination.”
This loosely defined term, as described by many (some linked below), is simply a way to allow people to speak utter trash without repercussions of any kind. There is the provision that clarifies “So long as such statements do not harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify a person or group,” but in many of the suggested cases, there appears to be very few that could be interpreted any differently. I’ll list a couple here, quoted from The Guardian (link below):
- “A Christian may say that unrepentant sinners will go to hell, an example cited in the [Explanatory Memo] which mirrors the facts of Israel Folau’s case”
- “A single mother who, when dropping her child off at daycare, may be told by a worker that she is sinful for denying her child a father (Public Interest Advocacy Centre)”
These, and the others, are not “statements of belief” – they are vicious pieces of diatribe, dribbled out by fanatics or heartless grubs. They are most certainly allowed to say them if they wish, but it is this kind of language and expression that the government wants to make exempt from any discrimination laws. All while protecting religious individuals and bodies from deserved criticism. How can telling someone they are going to Hell not be harassment, a threat, or intimidation?
Let’s make something crystal clear. Your religious beliefs are your personal business. Outside of your private affairs and places of worship, your views and practices have no place in public society. For too long has the Church as an institution held sway over the world, and many of the outdated and oppressive hallmarks of it are being shunned by both scientific and cultural backlash.
You can say whatever you like in private, or even in public – the right to freedom of speech and expression belongs to all – but do not dare be “offended” when people call out your bullshit.
This is a relatively brief review of the recent Draft Bill, but it is clear that the Religious Discrimination Bill is more concerned about exempting religious individuals and bodies from current legislation than it is about actually defending the rights of religious individuals. The latter is, as far as I am aware, already enshrined in law, and of course religious people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. The former, however, is the main intent of this Bill that the government is urgently trying to get thrown out there.
It won’t be introduced to Parliament until 2020, but opposition in the Senate is uncertain. There has been talk of some Labor Senators voting with the government, in which case this Bill has a good chance of becoming law. As if the increasing authoritarianism was not enough, the idea of us slowly leaning towards a mild theocracy, in which religious bodies are above the law – as they have been for too long in many cases – is extremely problematic.
The election of Trump, re-election of Morrison and Johnson, the rise of figures like Netanyahu and Bolsonaro, and any other leader out there with a strong religious streak behind their appalling political ideologies is a trend that should have us all worried. It is probably too early to cry “theocratic fascism”, but I have seen the term used a few times recently. Unless this can be turned around, I fear things will only get worse.
I’d ironically say, “God help us all”, but it appears I’m not on their side.
For those who want to read further:
- The Draft Bill
- Explanatory Notes on the Draft Bill
- Summary of Amendments made since the first draft
- The Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s September 30th Submissions to the first Draft
- The Guardian also collated a list containing things that are and are no permissible under this bill.
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