A clear majority of Australians, including nearly 60% of Labor voters, back new laws to prevent individuals, schools and companies from being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and practices.  The special Newspoll, comes as the government weighs up its response to a review into religious freedom conducted by former Liberal attorney-general Philip Ruddock and commissioned in the wake of the successful same-sex marriage plebiscite last November.  The Newspoll shows 59% of those surveyed were in favour of new laws to protect individuals, schools and companies because of their religious beliefs compared with 26% opposed to change.

About 65% of Coalition voters support a strengthening of protections for religious freedoms; 57% of Labor voters also backed the need for more robust protections.  Greens voters also overwhelmingly backed new laws to protect religious freedoms, with 63% saying they were in favour of change compared with 50% of One Nation voters.  The results show that support among all the key political parties is running in favour of legislating stronger protections for religious freedoms.  Despite the poll, a parliamentary committee has proposed the removal of key protections for faith-based educators from anti-discrimination laws.

A Senate inquiry examining the treatment of gay students and teachers at religious schools recommended the removal of an exemption at section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act.  This exemption currently allows faith-based schools the ability to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, although it is not used for this purpose by religious schools.  The Senate committee also recommended that “further consideration” be given to amending the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination by faith-based educators against gay teachers and staff.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has made it clear that the government will support the removal of the exemption in the Sex Discrimination Act allowing schools the ability to discriminate against students.  However, he will not remove the exemption that exists for teachers.  This section allows religious schools to discriminate against staff on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy, but again it is not used for this purpose.  Faith-based educators have argued that the exemption gives them the legal protection to insist on the employment of staff who uphold the fundamental religious mission of the school.

Faith-based educators have attacked the present system of exemptions, saying they discredit religious freedoms by framing them as a “negative right”.  This means religious schools are given the ability only to “discriminate” in key situations.  The committee has addressed this deficiency by recommending that “consideration be given to inserting in law a positive affirmation and protection of religious freedom in Australia that is appropriately balanced with other rights”.  Faith-based bodies have argued for religious freedoms to be expressed as a “positive right” in federal law, an action that would fundamentally reframe religious freedom protections.

It is also possible that the government will seek to introduce a Religious Discrimination Act, one of the key recommendations of the Ruddock review in a bid to reframe the current system of protections.  The committee also recommended “that the government immediately release to the public the full report and findings of the Religious Freedom Review” led by Mr Ruddock.  Some Christian schools have warned they will face an existential threat and could face claims of direct discrimination for promoting a biblical view of marriage if the exemptions were removed from the Sex Discrimination Act.

The issue of religious freedom is likely to gain traction in the ALP’s traditional heartland, with the opposition holding nine seats in Western Sydney that voted against same-sex marriage in last year’s postal plebiscite.  These included the electorates of senior opposition frontbenchers Chris Bowen, Tony Burke and Jason Clare, whose seat of Blaxland recorded the strongest ‘No’ vote against same-sex marriage of 73.9 per cent.  Newspoll indicates that 15% of the population is uncommitted on whether new laws are needed to better protect religious freedoms.  The results were based on a sample size of 1717 voters.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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