Scott Morrison has released the government’s updated draft religious discrimination bill, which includes stronger protections for faith-based groups and individuals and provides a clearer definition of vilification as “incitement of hatred or violence”.  The major overhaul of the initial draft bill, comes after a backlash from major religious groups and others.  The Prime Minister, who delayed tabling the religious discrimination bill in the final week of parliament, said the second draft of the religious discrimination legislation incorporated “many of the key changes that were suggested by religious bodies and other stakeholders”.

In a joint statement with Mr Porter, Mr Morrison said submissions in response to the new religious freedom draft bills would close on January 31.  “The release of the revised bill for a further period of consultation will provide all members of the Australian community an opportunity to consider these revisions and whether the amended bill further addresses the issues they have raised,” they said.  “As we have said, this is not a process that should be rushed.  What is important is that we get this legislation right and deliver lasting reforms that provide real protections for all Australians.”

Following extensive consultation on the religious freedoms package, including almost 6000 submissions and Mr Porter meeting with close to 100 stakeholder groups, the government has decided on several key changes to the original draft bill.  These include making it clearer for religious bodies to implement staffing and other decisions based “upon faith” in line with existing federal law.  Religious benevolent institutions will also be included in the definition of ‘religious bodies’.  Provisions aimed at supporting existing conscientious objections processes have been narrowed so that they apply only to nurses, midwives, doctors, psychologists and pharmacists.

Conscientious objections provisions have been made clearer in relation to not allowing a right “to discriminate against particular individuals based upon gender or other characteristics”.  As previously flagged by Mr Porter, there are also new provisions for faith-based hospitals and aged care facilities.  The new bill supports that “the current status quo under federal law is maintained, allowing religious hospitals, aged care facilities and accommodation providers (such as retirement homes) to employ staff to preserve a religious ethos, with additional specific protections for religious camps and conference centres”.

Mr Morrison and Mr Porter confirmed amendments had been made to clarify certain provisions, which had been described by legal experts as “ambiguous”.  “The term ‘vilify’ has been defined as incitement of hatred or violence,” they said.  “In addition, a definition of ‘conscientiously object’ has been included in response from a range of stakeholders, including the Australian Medical Association.  “Any form of discrimination will not be tolerated by our government.  We already have in place laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of their race, sex, age or disabilities.”  Controversial religious statements made at work Christmas parties will not be protected.

Mr Morrison said it made sense that religion “should be included so that Australians are free to live their lives in the way they choose to”. “We also understand that this process is about striking a balance and that the protections we deliver must be a shield from discrimination, not a sword.”  Christian Schools Australia director of public policy Mark Spencer welcomed the updated religious discrimination bill, thanking Mr Porter for “getting into the Christmas spirit”.  “The revised exposure draft shows that the government has been listening to the concerns of faith communities, and other groups, and provides much needed clarity around a number of areas,” Mr Spencer said.

“It is vital that we take the time to get this legislation right.  The second draft shows that we are well on the way to doing so.”  Mr Spencer called on the government to include consultation with the Opposition on the legislation”.  “We know that parents across Australia were saying to us how important the protection of values, beliefs, and freedom of religion are to them, our national polling during the election indicated that 66% of Australians support legal protections for religious freedom,” he said.  “Ordinary Australian, mums and dads, people of faith across Australia, want to see the major parties work together to get this legislation right.

Mr Morrison is open to further changes and the Coalition will work with Labor on amendments ahead of the legislation being finalised in February.  Mr Porter has clarified that a religious school or church does not discriminate if they preference staff and students on their faith.  “A Catholic school could fill a position with a Catholic simply because their preference is it be filled by a Catholic,” Mr Porter said. Association of Independent Schools NSW chief executive Geoff Newcombe said amendments appeared to address the original concern of faith-based schools over their right to preference the employment of teachers of the same faith.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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