'Fraught issue': Religious nursing homes, hospitals to be able to discriminate on staffing

Religious hospitals and aged care providers will be able to refuse to employ people on the basis of their religion, under a change to the Morrison government's proposed religious discrimination bill.

Attorney-General Christian Porter explained this was "probably the most significant change" to his contentious draft bill, which already allows other religious bodies - such as schools - to make staffing decisions to maintain "the religious ethos and culture of the organisation".

Mr Porter told the National Press Club on Wednesday that religious hospitals "do not appear to make decisions about the admission of patients based on any given patient's religion or absence of religion, and do not seek to do so". He added that with "very few exceptions," neither did aged care providers.

He later told ABC TV this change to his bill "does not change the status quo" and would not meant that hospitals could hire and fire on the basis of sexuality, age or disability.

"We're delivering protection to people," he said.

Aged and Community Services Australia, which represents not-for-profit aged care providers, said the issue had always been "fraught".

"A balance must be struck between the competing objectives of providing access and maintaining a faith-based identity. The most important thing must be all Australians get the care they deserve," ACSA chief executive Pat Sparrow said.

The Attorney-General said he was still aiming to introduce his bill this year, but could not guarantee the timeline. With two parliamentary sitting weeks left for 2019, Mr Porter is running out of time to introduce the bill by Christmas.

Public submissions on the bill closed last month, releasing an avalanche of diverse criticism from across the political and religious spectrum.

Mr Porter said there would be "other changes" to the draft bill, based on consultations with church and community groups, but suggested they would not be as significant as the amendment around aged care services and hospitals.

"It's not a major difference in terms of what we'll finally produce to what has been seen and
consulted on heavily," he said.

Equality Australia, which says new conscientious objection provisions in the bill could see LGBTIQ+ people and unmarried women refused healthcare, said Mr Porter's comments had not addressed their concerns.

"Instead, his comments suggest the bill will go further to entrench exemptions for religious organisations," chief executive Anna Brown said.

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has previously labelled the bill a "can of worms", predicting it will never become law.

Mr Porter said he would soon start negotiations with Labor, but noted the bill's passage through Parliament would be "complicated" and he had no particular date in mind for a final vote.

Asked about his religious beliefs, Mr Porter said he was not a regular churchgoer, but did believe in God: "It's very dangerous not to."