Fears Religious Discrimination Bill Could Be Delayed Beyond Next Federal Election

Faith leaders have criticised the delay of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry into religious discrimination laws in schools as “very frustrating,” warning there is growing doubt over the government’s ability to pass legislation this term. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus recently announced that the ALRC review would be pushed out until the end of the year following a request from the inquiry’s head, Justice Stephen Rothman. The decision followed more than 420 submissions being made to the ALRC, along with 40,000 survey responses. The review, announced in November, was described by the government as the “crucial first step” to introducing religious discrimination laws, which the former government failed to pass through parliament before the last election. Anglican Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead said he was disappointed by the decision to delay the review by eight months “because of the consequential delay to a religious discrimination bill.”

“It’s problematic the closer it gets to an election,” he told The Australian. “We saw last time with the Morrison government that this became a political issue. My concern is that when this becomes a political issue, it’s very difficult to find a way forward.” Australian National Imams Council spokesman Bilal Rauf said he had hoped to see a religious discrimination bill this year and that the delay in the process was “very frustrating”. “This has been an issue which has been on the horizon for many years now and gone through many iterations in terms of bills … So there comes a point when people I think, start to wonder, is it all just optics or is there a real intent behind it?” he said. “To date, there hasn‘t hadn’t been any runs on the board. It’s just been a whole lot of discussion. So, there is a sense of disappointment, there is a sense of ‘is this any different to the past experience,’ where we talk about it and it spins out into the indefinite future?”

Dr Stead said the updated time frame of the review also risked coinciding with a parliamentary inquiry into the nation’s human rights framework, which he worried could have implications on the planned religious freedom laws. He said the longer religious freedom laws took to legislate, the longer people of faith were at risk of discrimination, particularly in NSW where the state’s parliament was holding off passing its own religious discrimination laws until the federal government did so. “The longer that deficit remains unaddressed, the worse it is for people in New South Wales,” he said. Christian Schools Australia public policy director Mark Spencer said there was a “clear sense of deja vu” following the announcement to delay the ALRC inquiry. “The last parliament failed to deliver on a legislative package to protect people of faith and address student concern … the politics of a looming election overshadow the commitment to fundamental freedoms,” he said.

“On behalf of people of faith across Australia, but particularly those in our school communities, as well as the students within our schools, we are calling on the government to commence public consultations on a religious discrimination bill while the ALRC is concluding its work.” Anti-discrimination law changes are an ‘attack on religious freedom’ and ‘faith schools’. Peak body for Buddhists in Australia, the Australian Sangha Association, said “the sooner the bill is addressed the better, as this would benefit many community groups who feel they are discriminated against”. “It is recognised that delays in the bill can needlessly cause the rise of derogatory arguments and resentments that cause distress to members of the community and in particular those who feel marginalised,” ASA chair Venerable Tenpa Bejanke said.

“This is especially true when the arguments become politicised and vulnerable people are once again exposed to cruel and harsh judgments and so experience a heightened sense of fear, despair and dismissal of their very being.” A spokeswoman for Mr Dreyfus said the government was committed to passing legislation to protect people of faith against discrimination this term. “The government, this term, will prohibit discrimination against people of faith, including anti-vilification protections, act to protect all students from discrimination on any grounds and protect teachers from discrimination at work, while maintaining the right of religious schools to preference people of their faith in the selection of staff,” she said.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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