Conservative Coalition MPs emboldened by strong support from religious voters at the election are pushing the Morrison government for far-reaching religious freedom provisions in forthcoming laws. Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce wants laws to exempt religious beliefs from employment contracts, in effect giving legal protection to views such as those expressed by rugby star Israel Folau that homosexuals and fornicators will go to hell. “You can’t bring people’s faith beliefs into a contract,” Mr Joyce said. “Your own views on who or where god is or whether there is a god should remain your own personal views and not part of any contractual obligation.”
Attorney-General Christian Porter is expected to present a Religious Discrimination Act to the Parliament in July, acting on a pre-election commitment to boost protections for people of faith against discrimination and vilification. But some Coalition MPs believe the election results, including significant swings away from Labor in highly religious seats, underline the case for bolder reforms to enshrine freedoms other than freedom from discrimination. Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who worked extensively with faith leaders to galvanise the support of religious voters during the campaign, said the election marked a “new dawn” on religious freedom.
She called for a standalone Religious Freedom Act that would give greater legal heft to the demands set out by church leaders, Christian schools and other faith-based institutions. Senator Fierravanti-Wells also said the government need not await the findings of a review being undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) into exemptions to anti-discrimination laws currently enjoyed by religious schools. “Whilst the ALRC is not due to report until April 2020, given its diverse and broad terms of reference, I believe that the recent election has reinforced the need for more immediate legislative action,” she told the press.
“This is vitally important to not only address our concerns but afford protection against these constant incursions from Labor, the Greens and their acolytes. It’s a new dawn on this issue.” Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who voted against marriage equality when it was legalised in 2017, said the election results “had their antecedents in the same-sex marriage debate”, noting large swings to the government in culturally diverse seats around western Sydney. Banks, Blaxland, Fowler and McMahon, which voted “no” to same-sex marriage, all posted swings to the Coalition above 3 per cent, although so did many electorates that voted “yes”.
Mr Joyce, a former Nationals leader, said Folau’s sacking “got a lot of people annoyed” during the election campaign. “People were a little bit shocked that someone could lose their job because of what they believe,” he said. “It made everyone feel a bit awkward and uneasy.” Mr Joyce said he would argue within the Coalition that any religious freedom law should include clauses to prevent employers crafting contracts that could penalise people for their religious beliefs. “That would be my input, but whether it’s what other people’s views are, I don’t know,” he said.
Such a law should not necessarily be nicknamed “Folau’s Law” because it would give the sacked rugby player credit for a law that “should be designed for everybody”, Mr Joyce said. Late last year, in response to former attorney-general Philip Ruddock’s review, Mr Porter pledged to introduce a Religious Discrimination Act and appoint a religious freedom commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Last week he said religious freedom was a “key issue” in the election campaign due to “enormous concern” about Labor’s plans on the issue, and indicated legislation would be a priority when Parliament resumes at the start of July.
New Labor leader Anthony Albanese acknowledged his party needed to show greater “respect” to religious views after frontbenchers Chris Bowen and Tony Burke publicly lamented that people of faith had lost trust in Labor and progressive politics. Liberal senator Eric Abetz said the Coalition owed Rugby Australia “a bit of gratitude because their ham-fisted approach to Israel Folau clearly elevated the issue and concerned many, many people”. He agreed with Senator Fierravanti-Wells on the need for positively-framed legislation to establish religious freedoms but said it should be broader and encompass free speech.
Source: Compiled by APN from media reports