News National Government to debate new laws on religious discrimination

Government to debate new laws on religious discrimination

Scott Morrison says the Israel Folau case shows a "gap" in religious freedom laws. Photo: Getty
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Scott Morrison has told a closed-door meeting of religious leaders that the government is discussing how to provide greater protection against religious discrimination for workers in cases like that of rugby star Israel Folau.

Religious schools also want the right to refuse to enrol students who are not of their faith, and the right to refuse jobs to workers who don’t fit with their religious values.

A promised prohibition on schools expelling students who are gay will also be considered.

The PM and cabinet will debate the new laws this week, before the release of an exposure draft on the legislation.

There is no suggestion the laws would be retrospective and apply to Folau.

But discussion naturally turned during the August 5 meeting in Sydney to whether greater protection for workers is needed when expressing religious beliefs.

Sources who attended said Mr Morrison indicated the government had not settled the matter, and draft proposals would be released shortly for public consultation.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has previously indicated he wants the laws to prevent employers from enshrining workplace bans on workers expressing religious views, but that it was a matter of balancing competing interests.

Mr Porter said there was a “real issue” that arises around corporate employers policing private lives and private discussions outside of work hours.

“The Morrison government went to the election as the only party that promised to protect religious Australians against discrimination and we remain committed to delivering on that promise,” he said on Sunday.

Folau’s contract was terminated by Rugby Australia after he paraphrased a quote from the Bible in an Instagram post warning that unrepentant gays, adulterers, drunkards and idolaters will go to hell.

He is challenging his dismissal in the Federal Court, arguing this violated his religious freedoms.

He has subsequently preached that the devil was at work in government plans to allow school children to change their gender.

A resolution will also be required on whether religious schools should be banned from expelling gay students, a matter that was deferred last year.

During the Wentworth by-election in October, Mr Morrison pledged to act on the issue by Christmas.

After independent Kerryn Phelps lost the seat at May’s federal election, and Liberal candidate Dave Sharma was elected, the Prime Minister did not keep his pledge.

“It was a promise made during the Wentworth by-election and never eventuated,” Dr Phelps told The New Daily. 

“It got kicked off to the long grass. There is no need for an opinion from [the Australian] Law Reform Commission on whether kids should be discriminated against.”

Dr Phelps said the gay and lesbian community was deeply concerned the religious discrimination laws were a trade off with conservatives for same-sex marriage reforms.

“It’s called religious freedom, but it’s basically a privilege to be exempt from anti-discrimination law,” Dr Phelps said.

“The LGBTQI community is the most likely to be affected.”

The laws follow the Religious Freedom Review conducted by an expert panel headed by Philip Ruddock.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Peter Wertheim said the laws will prohibit discrimination against another person on the basis of that person’s religious beliefs or affiliation.

But it will then provide a series of exceptions that will permit faith-based organisations to exclude a person of another faith, or no faith, from membership or employment.

“For example, in synagogues and other institutions which adhere to Orthodox Jewish tradition, certain roles, such as rabbis and cantors, and certain functions, such as acting as a judge of a Beth Din [Jewish religious court], the solemnisation of religious marriages, the performance of a religious circumcision, the religious slaughter of animals and the burial of the dead, are required by halachah [Jewish religious law] to be carried out by religiously observant males,” Mr Wertheim said.

“Some Jewish schools professing an Orthodox Jewish ethos will only enrol students who are halachically Jewish. Others may also separate their male and female students for some of their classes.

“Another priority for Orthodox Jewish schools is their freedom to set and enforce conditions for employees and contractors, which prohibit behaviour that conflicts with the school’s ethos.”

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