The Guardian • Issue #1996

Amendment push scraps religious discrimination bill

  • by E Lennon
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1996

Trent Zimmerman at the opening of the Australian School Library Association (ASLA) Conference in North Sydney, July 2017. (Photo: Ailsa.hill2 – creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

The government’s proposed changes to religious freedom law have been put on an indefinite pause, following much debate in the House of Representatives.

The Coalition made the decision when it became clear that the bill had changed significantly from its original iteration.

Originally, the bill would have seen religious schools able to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ students and teachers.

On the 10th February, five Liberal MPs crossed the floor and supported the crossbench to extend protections for queer and transgender students.

Among those that crossed the floor was the Member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman, who was the first openly gay member of the House of Representatives.

“There are people today who are in mental anguish because of their sexuality. There are even more people in anguish because of their gender. We have to provide a legal environment that supports them,” Zimmerman said.

“Part of that is ensuring that when they’re going to school, they do so knowing, at the very least, that that school cannot legally discriminate against them, the school cannot expel them, and the school cannot penalise them in a way that they have a de facto expulsion because their life becomes so unpleasant.”

Labor MP Mike Freelander told the ABC that there are more pressing issues and that the debate over the bill prevented them from being addressed.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to me,” Freelander said.

“There are a whole lot more things we should be looking at and should be trying to do, such as the Integrity Commission. Then there’s a whole range of health issues that I think need to be properly aired and discussed, particularly aged care.”

The debate in the House of Representatives comes after the crisis in worker shortages and pressure in health and care systems continue. Earlier in February, the Minister for Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck stated that he didn’t accept the system was in a complete crisis.

Focus on a bill that would affect LGBTQIA+ rights in the name of freedom of religious expression while nurses leave their positions in record numbers shows how detached the Morrison Government is from realities facing Australia.

Former Labor leader, Bill Shorten spoke in his capacity as Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme that the bill caused him concern over examples of religious discrimination against people with disabilities.

“Some documented examples of current abuse are direct statements to people of disability that their disability is punishment from God for their or their parents’ sins, or their disability can be healed by prayer,” Shorten said in his speech.

After Labor’s amendments on protections for LGBT+ children were passed, conservative Liberals and spokespeople from religious organisations called for the bill to be scrapped altogether. Those in favour of scrapping the bill after the amendments did so because they believed it “undermined” the rest of the bill.

“With the amendments so damaging to religious freedom, the government should immediately withdraw the bills,” Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Wendy Francis said.

“The loss of this protection would outweigh any benefits that could be obtained by the religious discrimination bill […] the government should immediately withdraw the bills.”

Representatives from the Islamic community expressed their concern that without the Religious Discrimination Bill, there would remain gaps in protections for Muslims in Australia.

“There are already some laws there which protect against vilification based on other attributes. It’s just as important to protect against hate speech based on a person’s religious identity,” Australian National Imams Council spokesperson, Bilal Rauf told Guardian Australia.

“We know from direct experience of people in the community that there are many who have had to deal with very acerbic comments based on them wearing the hijab or having a beard or something relating to their religious identity.”

Labor MP Peter Khalil, who is Egyptian-Australian, spoke to religious discrimination faced in both in his personal and professional life.

“This amendment goes directly to defending people of faith,” Khalil said.

“Close your eyes. Imagine yourself as a member of a Jewish family, walking to the Synagogue on the Sabbath and a car full of yobbos starts spewing an antisemitic tirade against you and your children.

“Imagine stacking shelves at a supermarket, that you’re a Sikh, that someone starts screaming at you, that you’re a terrorist. […] These are real examples of ordinary Australians and what they’ve experienced.”

Protections for Australians of diverse backgrounds and identities are crucial; yet the Australian Christian Lobby and the Morrison Government’s homophobic and transphobic bent in the proposed legislation overshadowed what could have and should have been a productive discussion about issues such as the Islamophobia, antisemitism, and racism that many Australians live with on a frequent basis.

The Morrison Government has shelved the bill; however, if the party takes out a victory in this year’s federal election, there’s no way of knowing if the bill will make a comeback. There’s also no way of knowing what further proposals, if not from this bill, and what further debates could arise from three or four more years of a Liberal Party government.

The Religious Discrimination Bill and the harmful conservative line in its original draft does not exist within a vacuum; it is indicative of a greater agenda within Canberra to align with conservative lobbyists. The Morrison Government has shown a stronger willingness to collaborate with those who hold harmful views than to listen to the lived experiences of the youngest members of the LGBT+ community, their families, and their teachers.

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