Attorney-General Christian Porter has pledged new religious discrimination laws will operate as a “shield, not a sword” and will not prohibit state laws requiring priests to report child sex abuse.
Speaking after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting to finalise the draft laws, Mr Porter said he expected to release the proposals shortly – with Parliament to consider the laws by Christmas.
The push for religious freedom protections follow the passage of same-sex marriage laws and concerns raised by religious groups that they may be restricted from expressing their opposition.
“The laws will protect people from being discriminated against, but will not give them a licence to discriminate against other people,” Mr Porter said.
“What we aim to deliver was rightly described by Anglican Public Affairs Commission chairwoman Carolyn Tan today as being a ‘shield’ against discrimination, and not a ‘sword’.’’
But concerns have been raised about what effect, if any, the laws may have on demands for priests to report child abuse confessions.
Broadcaster and former senator Derryn Hinch said any changes must not open the door to the Catholic Church being exempt from laws requiring priests to report pedophiles to the police.
“State law must overtake and overrule religious laws. If doctors and nurses and teachers have to tell authorities if they learn of child abuse, then priests have to, too,” Mr Hinch told The New Daily.
“I am totally against this. I don’t think we should change our existing laws at all.”
But a spokesman for Mr Porter insisted the new protections for religious freedoms will have no impact on mandatory reporting requirements.
“Mandatory reporting is a state issue,” the spokesman said.
“The bill will protect Australians from discrimination, but will not legalise conduct that is made unlawful under state law.”
Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli recently warned he is prepared to go to jail rather than break the seal of the confession.
“Personally, I will keep the seal,” he told ABC radio.
Archbishop Comensoli last week called for amendments to the Victorian legislation requiring priests report abuse to protect religious freedom.
The new laws follow the royal commission into child abuse.
“I urge the government to focus on stronger protection for children, not on infringing on religious liberty,” the Archbishop said.
Some priests now refuse to take confession in the ACT, citing the mandatory reporting guidelines already introduced.