The government will introduce a Religious Discrimination Act to protect the rights of people of faith, with Scott Morrison declaring he would like the legislation passed before the election.
Announcing the government’s long-awaited response to the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom – which the government has had since May - Morrison said some people of faith felt “the walls closing in on them”.
In a range of measures, the government said that as well as making religion a “protected attribute” in the new Religious Discrimination Act, it would also
establish a statutory position of Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission;
develop a Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill to bring in a range of amendments recommended by the Ruddock review.
Morrison repeated his offer of a free vote on the legislation before parliament to protect LGBT students in religious schools from discrimination. This legislation was deadlocked with Labor in the last week of sitting.
The government is now referring this and the broader issue of discrimination against LGBT teachers and other staff in these schools for discussion with the states, with a potential referral to the Australian Law Reform Commission, which would report in the second half of next year.
Morrison said 70% of Australians identified with some religious belief.
People of faith feel “walls closing in”
Strongly arguing for his proposed changes, he said: “Those who think that Australians of religious faith don’t feel that the walls have been closing in on them for a while” were “clearly not talking to many people in religious communities or multicultural communities in Australia.”
He had had a conversation with a community in Western Sydney who “said they left where they came from to come to Australia because of religious persecution in the countries they were living in - only now, they feel, to be potentially facing the same sort of limitations to how they practice their religion in this country.
"And that made me incredibly sad. That one of the great liberties Australia has always been known for - at perception and indeed in their mind in fact - is being curtailed. I don’t think that’s something I should allow to stand,” Morrison said.
Timing up in the air
On the timing of the legislation, he said: “I’m happy for us to advance a Religious Discrimination Act and also to deal with the other legislative matters before the next election. I would hope they would have the support of the Labor Party”.
There will be consultations over the summer.
But with only a handful of sitting days before the election, it will be testing to meet Morrison’s timetable for passage.
The Law Council supported enshrining religious protections but said “the delicate balance between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination would be better dealt with in comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislation”.