Australia’s peak Christian lobby group has told Christian Porter the government’s updated discrimination bill requires wholesale changes, as the Attorney-General prepares to re-engage with key faith groups ahead of finalising legislation to protect religious freedoms.  Mr Porter has come under pressure from leading faith, legal, business, education, health and social groups in the past week demanding his revamped religious discrimination legislation be heavily amended, delayed or dumped.  The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), which has more than 170,000 supporters, described the bill as containing “fundamental deficiencies which need to be addressed”.

In a submission lodged with the Attorney-General, ACL said Mr Porter’s draft legislation needed “considerable amendment before it is an effective religious discrimination bill”.  The ACL said it wanted to work with the government and MPs to “facilitate changes to protect Australians from religious discrimination”.  Mr Porter has confirmed he would undertake “another brief round of consultations” before a final bill was put to parliament.  He said there had been “sensible issues raised in some submissions around the effectiveness of drafting”, including in relation to Jewish aged-care and hospitals.

The bill is likely to be introduced in March before entering a parliamentary review process, and substantial amendments would be required to win passage, and bipartisan support, for a religious discrimination act.  “Naturally that bill will be subject to parliamentary committee processes, and the parliamentary committee will make recommendations that will be considered by government as the bill progresses through parliament,” Mr Porter said.  The ACL said the government had “clearly made an effort” in responding to concerns of faith groups, including addressing two of the seven issues raised by the group, but felt the new bill failed to fix “fundamental flaws”.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) also expressed “significant concerns” about the draft bill, because of its “unorthodox features”, and warned of an adverse impact on businesses.  “These not only raise human rights concerns, but also complicate an already complex area of law,” the LCA submission said.  “By adding multifaceted and novel legal tests to existing legal frameworks, the bill is likely to create an onerous compliance burden for the business and community sectors alike.”  The rising opposition to the new legislation unveiled last year sets up a potential showdown in the Coalition party-room and with Labor unless the concerns of stakeholder groups are addressed.

Acknowledging a change to the statements of belief clause in clarifying the definition of “vilify”, the ACL said adding the words “threaten” and “seriously intimidate” would hand tribunals and courts an opportunity to “knock out an otherwise protected statement of belief”.  It said the three “most important areas of concern” raised by the ACL in its original submission were not addressed.  It said “lawful religious activity” remained undefined, “unjustifiable financial hardship” of an employer should not be a defence for discrimination against an employee who makes a statement of belief outside work and government employers should be included.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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