Labor Urged to Revisit Religious Freedom Laws

Religious leaders and the Coalition are urging Anthony Albanese to ignore a report it commissioned into reducing discrimination at faith-based schools, claiming the lead author has contradicted its findings by calling for stronger legal protections for religious institutions to adhere to their doctrines and hire staff who share their values. Anglican Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead and Christian Schools Australia director Mark Spencer have urged the Prime Minister to return to the drawing board and provide a plan that gives more certainty for faith groups. Opposition legal affairs spokeswoman Michaelia Cash also declared there needed to be a “series of major changes” to the government’s draft religious discrimination bill to gain bipartisan support. The calls came after NSW Supreme Court judge Stephen Rothman, who led the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of discrimination at religious schools, told The Weekend Australian that faith employers needed a religious discrimination bill that included a “positive right” to hire staff based on their ethos.

Justice Rothman said the commission’s report released by the Albanese government last month, which proposed removing a section of the Sex Discrimination Act that allowed schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, was “constrained” by the terms of reference set by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. The “positive right” proposal would go further in protecting faith institutions than what the government is proposing in a draft bill of its religious discrimination act, according to sources. The government’s draft bill, which the media understands proposes legally weaker discrimination “exceptions”, has not been publicly released. Justice Rothman argued his proposal did not contradict the official ARLC report as the government did not task him with designing a religious discrimination act, only to advise on section 38 of the SDA. But Dr Stead said he believed Justice Rothman articulated a “different position to that that is in the ARLC report”.

He said the commission recommended changes to the Fair Work Act that would have the effect of only allowing faith schools to preference on the basis of a religion “where it was a genuine occupational requirement”. “So, a chaplain has to be Christian at a Christian school,” Dr Stead said. “I agree we do need a positive right in order to allow schools to practice their faith.” Mr Spencer said Justice Rothman’s comments “takes away any moral authority that report has”. “Any sense the ALRC report reflects a clear, considered, impartial legal analysis has gone out the window,” he said. Senator Cash said Mr Albanese had a “clear problem” when his approach to religious freedom was not shared by Justice Rothman, declaring the Coalition would not back the government’s current proposal. “Faith leaders have told us they are concerned the government has moved away from the positive language used to protect freedom of religion in the Coalition’s 2022 bill,” Senator Cash said.

“Instead, it has adopted language more consistent with exceptions. This has been a long-term issue for faith leaders, who do not see freedom of a religion as a mere exception, but instead as a fundamental human right that is protected under international law. “It is time for Mr Albanese to release his religious discrimination legislation for public scrutiny and stop trying to govern behind closed doors. Australians deserve better.” Senator Cash said it was essential the federal laws would override state and territory anti-discrimination rules. “The Prime Minister should guarantee that religious schools are able to ensure that their staff members’ conduct and behaviour adheres to the school’s religious ethos,’’ she said.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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