Church groups threaten to withdraw support for religious discrimination bill

Church groups threaten to withdraw support for religious discrimination bill

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suffered another blow to his policy agenda, with powerful religious leaders threatening to withdraw support for the government's religious discrimination bill unless greater freedoms are granted for Australians of faith.

In letter sent to Mr Morrison this week, a draft of which was seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, a coalition of religious groups says: "We take the view that it would be better to have no Religious Discrimination Act rather than a flawed one."

The groups, which include the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Australian National Imams Council and the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia, say the bill in its current form will "diminish the religious freedom of faith groups in Australia".

The intervention, which could delay the bill's introduction to parliament until next year, follows a series of setbacks for the Morrison government in the second-last sitting week of 2019.

The government suffered a shock defeat on industrial relations law on Thursday and is facing mounting pressure over the conduct of Energy Minister Angus Taylor. It is also struggling to get the numbers to repeal the refugee medical transfer - or "medevac" - laws.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has been planning to introduce the controversial religious discrimination laws to parliament by Christmas. But the religious groups, which also include the Australian Christian Lobby, Christian Schools Australia and Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist and Presbyterian leaders, suggest the government may be better off waiting.

"Given the time constraints of the parliamentary year and the need to redraft the bill to meet our concerns, we would be comfortable with seeing this important legislation introduced at the start of next year," the letter says.

The government released a draft bill in August, resulting in an avalanche of criticism from diverse religious groups who say the current version does not go far enough.

One of the specific criticisms from churches has been the definition of "religious body", as these are given special protections over their ability to hire and fire staff on the basis of religious belief. Churches, religious schools and registered charities all qualify as religious bodies, but not groups that engage primarily in "commercial activities".

In response to church concerns, Mr Porter last week announced he would update the bill to include religious hospitals and aged care homes as religious bodies. He described this as "probably the most significant change" to his draft bill.

During an address to the National Press Club, he observed that while religious groups might not be "deliriously happy" with what would be presented to parliament, he thought "there will ultimately be an endorsement".

In their letter, copied to Mr Porter, the religious leaders say they remain "deeply concerned" about the lack of protections for religious bodies engaged in commercial activities. They say there will be "very serious unintended consequences" for the operation of faith-based charities, such as Vinnies' op-shops and Christian campsites.

"This issue is mission-critical for many faith-based organisations which exist to further a religious purpose," the letter says. "On the current drafting, it would be an offence, for example, for a Christian campsite (if it operates "commercially") to advertise for Christian staff to run the campsite."

The religious leaders further warn the matters they raise "go to whether we would be able to endorse the bill at all, rather than speaking against it".

The proposed bill has also met with strong criticism elsewhere in the community. Equality Australia says the proposed laws will open the door to discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people and women. Business groups strongly object to plans to limit the restrictions companies with revenue of $50 million or more can place on employees expressing controversial religious beliefs outside work hours.

On Friday, the draft legislation program for the House of Representatives next week, circulated by Mr Porter's office, did not include the religious discrimination bill. The government says this is "subject to change".

Asked whether the government was considering the churches' letter and if the bill would be introduced to parliament next week, a spokesperson for Mr Porter said: "The Attorney-General has received hundreds of submissions by way of letters and other correspondence which has all formed part of the continuing consultation process on the Religious Discrimination Act. The Attorney-General will outline next steps in due course."