The Attorney-General released a draft Religious Discrimination Bill in August. The Bill is intended to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity and follows the recommendations of the Religious Freedom Review in 2018. The Government is currently accepting feedback about the draft and is likely to introduce it to Parliament later in 2019.
The Bill includes provisions that will make it unlawful to discriminate against Australians on the basis of their religion. The Bill protects against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity in multiple areas of public life, including employment, education, access to premises, sports, clubs, services and goods. The proposed Bill aims to ensure that people of faith have adequate protection from discrimination based on that faith, which marks an important step in the national debate about the importance and protection of human rights.
However, the Bill explicitly overrides existing discrimination protection for other groups of people, effectively weakening and removing protections that people currently have under existing law. It provides that a religious ‘statement of belief’ made in good faith will not constitute discrimination under any Australian discrimination law. It also prioritises the protections afforded to religious people over other discrimination laws. No other groups protected by discrimination laws are prioritised in this way.
The Bill Weakens Protections for Young People
The Bill is highly likely to disproportionately affect young people who experience marginalisation, effectively allowing discrimination in a range of areas, including in health care, education and the provision of services.
Clause 8(6) would permit health care professionals to refuse to provide medical treatment if they have objections based on their religious belief.
- A LGBTIQA+ person visiting their GP could be refused treatment for any condition at all, even if that condition is unrelated to their gender or sexual identity. As an example, a young queer person may visit their GP for an ear infection, and under clause 8(6) of the Bill, the GP may refuse to provide treatment. This would potentially allow health professionals to completely abandon their patients without the requirement to facilitate access to an alternative health professional or service. In rural and regional areas, this may mean that young people have extremely limited access to all health services.
- A pharmacist may refuse to fill a young persons’ prescription, preventing access to emergency contraception, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), or other treatments. This will particularly undermine young women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Clause 41 would override all federal, state and territory discrimination laws and remove protections when an individual, including a teacher, makes a statement of belief related to their faith.
- Students will be unable to raise discrimination complaints under existing laws when teachers make derogatory and discriminatory comments. This is likely to particularly affect LGBTIQ+ people, who are already at greater risk of mental ill-health as a result of discrimination in schools. For example, a teacher may state to an individual student or classroom that ‘gays are broken and will go to hell’ or ‘I pray for your sins’ without repercussion.
Clause 10 would broadly allow religious entities, including schools, to discriminate against people on the basis of religion.
- Religious schools would be able to prevent students of different faiths from enrolling. This would particularly impact access to education in rural and regional areas. Religious schools would also have the power to refuse to employ teachers who are not part of the same religion or denomination as that school, or where the school are opposed to the teacher’s sexuality or lifestyle. This will prevent students from accessing the best possible education and the most qualified teachers.
- Similarly, a religious school would be able to expel students who change religion or denomination part way through the school year. As a result of Clause 10, the student would not be able to challenge or overturn their expulsion.
Clause 10 would also allow other religious entities, including registered charities and non-commercial entities, to discriminate against people on the basis of religion.
- A young Muslim person may be refused service on the basis of their religion by a soup kitchen operated by a Catholic affiliated organisation. This is because clause 10 of the Bill is drafted so widely that it could potentially allow religious affiliated charities to refuse to assist people of a different faith or of no faith.
- A young person experiencing homelessness could be refused access to a shelter if they were not of the same faith as the operator of the shelter or identified as LGBTIQ+. Similarly, young women could be refused access to shelters if they identified that they were pregnant but single.
Equal Protection Before the Law
The proposed Bill is important in terms of protecting the rights of young people of faith. However, it includes unnecessary provisions that do nothing to protect those people, and instead allow harmful discrimination against many young people. In its current form, the proposal may result in young people losing access to health services, experiencing significant discrimination in education settings and being refused services. There is clear evidence that this kind of discrimination is a major cause of mental health issues, alcohol and other drug dependence, and suicide.
Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic) recognises the need to protect young people of faith and supports the introduction of the Bill only to the extent that it achieves this aim. However, the Bill should be amended so that it does not impact access to services, override existing discrimination laws, and permit people to discriminate against others. YACVic recommends that the Government consult with all young people, including young people of faith, to better understand their experiences and implement legislation that equally protects all young Australians.
[i] Exposure Draft - Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Cth) (Austl.). Retrieved from https://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Documents/religious-freedom-bills/exposure-draft-religious-discrimination-bill.pdf
[ii] Exposure Draft - Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Cth) s. 8.6 (Austl.). Retrieved from https://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Documents/religious-freedom-bills/exposure-draft-religious-discrimination-bill.pdf
[iii] Exposure Draft - Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Cth) s. 41 (Austl.). .). Retrieved from https://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Documents/religious-freedom-bills/exposure-draft-religious-discrimination-bill.pdf
[iv] Exposure Draft - Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Cth) s. 10 (Austl.). .). Retrieved from https://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Documents/religious-freedom-bills/exposure-draft-religious-discrimination-bill.pdf