Australia’s faith leaders are urging Scott Morrison to put the implementation of a Religious Discrimination Act at the top of his political agenda this year, warning their congregations would hold the Prime Minister to his election pledge once COVID-19 passes. Mr Morrison’s commitments to deliver protections for faith-based businesses, schools, hospitals, aged care homes and community organisations have remained stalled for 12 months after the government was forced to prioritise its responses to the pandemic and bushfire recovery. Catholic, Anglican and other faith leaders said work on a Religious Discrimination Act (RDA) must begin as early as February when federal parliament returned from its summer break.
Some religious leaders argue COVID-19 restrictions, forcing the temporary closures and caps on congregations at churches, mosques and synagogues, had made religious protections more vital than ever. Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli said the pandemic had shown parliaments and public servants were “ignorant” in their approaches to people of faith. “I’m puzzled as to where this is going now. Matters of religious freedoms and protections are things that need to be grappled with by both major parties,” Archbishop Comensoli said. “The time of COVID has shown at the level of parliaments, the level of the public service, there is significant ignorance around religious life. A number of decisions made in a number of states are some examples of that growing ignorance.”
As the nation entered COVID-19 lockdown in March, Attorney-General Christian Porter quietly delayed the Australian Law Reform Commission review of the framework of religious exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation. It was the second delay to the key Coalition election commitment, which was intended to legislate religious freedoms in the wake of the same-sex marriage vote. Mr Porter has said the government was not focusing on an RDA until the pandemic was over. “The government will revisit its legislative program as the situation develops, and bring the religious discrimination bill forward at an appropriate time,” Mr Porter said. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies said the delays in Canberra had to stop. “The federal government should make this a priority as soon as the parliament returns to normal operations,” he said.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry chief executive Peter Wertheim, who has long advocated federal protections for religious minorities, said he was willing to wait another election cycle to ensure the RDA was not politically divisive. After suffering swings in traditionally safe western Sydney seats at last year’s election, right-faction Labor MPs are agitating for the party to adopt strong support for religious freedoms in the party’s policy platform, which will be finalised at the ALP national conference due before Easter. The swings were linked to Labor MPs support for same sex marriage despite a swathe of multicultural seats voting No in the plebiscite, and Bill Shorten’s election campaign misstep where he called on Mr Morrison to say whether he believed gay people would go to hell.
Source: Compiled by APN from media reports