The Religious Discrimination Bill is a proposed legal document first introduced in the Australian Parliament by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in December 2021. It was first proposed after a 2018 government-appointed panel found that there were greater opportunities to "protect and better promote the right to freedom of religion". The bill passed the House of Representatives, with amendments, on the night of February 9, 2022; however it did not to proceed to the Senate, and both the Government and Opposition have indicated they are unlikely to push it prior to the upcoming Federal election. Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to reintroduce the bill to parliament if re-elected.
On November 22, 2017, the Australian Government appointed an expert panel to investigate whether current laws adequately protected freedom of religion across the nation. This report was tendered to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on May 18, 2018, and contained twenty individual recommendations for the Government. This report was not released immediately; it was only in December of that year, after Mr. Turnbull had been succeeded by then-Treasurer Scott Morrison as Prime Minister, that the details of the report were leaked and became public. This resulted in a greater backlash than anticipated, from groups including LGBTQIA+ communities, human rights groups, and some religious institutions.
Throughout late-2019 and early-2020, the bill underwent two separate periods of consultation; the first exposure draft consultation occurred between August 29, 2019, to October 2, 2019; the second took place from December 10, 2019, to January 31, 2020. Over 6,000 submissions were received on the first exposure draft, a number of which came from various campaigns, while over 7,000 were received on the second.
Little headway was made during 2020, and it was not until June 2021 that the Government officially set a date for the bill to be debated in parliament. At that time, Morrison agreed to amend sections that would allow for schools to exclude students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
On the night of February 9, 2022, the current Parliament of Australia debated the bill in the House of Representatives. Though members of the Liberal-National Party (LNP) had stated that transgender students would not be protected under the law due to time constraints to pass it, five members of the LNP crossed the bench to vote in support of the amendments that would see transgender students protected. As a result, the bill was passed with the amendments. These amendments only protected students, and as such faith-based schools would still be allowed to discriminate against teachers should the bill be passed into law. This did not deter Parliament at the time, however hours later the LNP and Australian Labor Party (ALP) voted to scrap the bill; the LNP cited advice that indicated the amendments would have "unintended consequences" as being the reason for not continuing to push the bill through the Senate. Minutes later, Attorney-General Michaela Cash announced an inquiry into these unintended consequences, which have broadly been described as having the potential to "increase the risk of discrimination in schools" (italics original) against transgender and intersex students. With only two sitting days left in the Australian Senate before the budget is announced, and a maximum of ten before the next Federal election, a decision that had previously been criticized by the Opposition, the bill was not voted on again prior to the Australian federal election; however, Scott Morrison stated that the bill would be reintroduced should the current government be re-elected. In response, key members of the LNP signaled their willingness to cross the floor and vote against their party should the bill be raised a second time under the same circumstances.
The Religious Discrimination Bill is designed to enshrine in law protections for religious people and institutions to ensure that they are not discriminated against based on "genuinely held" religious beliefs, and make statements of such beliefs immune from legal consequence. There are three key components to the bill, broadly categorized as a 'legislative package':
- The Religious Discrimination Bill, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. The bill also creates a new office of the Religious Discrimination Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission.
- The Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, which amends Commonwealth legislation to reflect the changes in the Religious Discrimination Bill; and
- The Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill, which will provide certainty to charities, religious educational institutions, and the community by clarifying ambiguities in the Charities Act 2013 and the Marriage Act 1961, and inserts or updates objects clauses into the other Commonwealth discrimination laws to recognize the indivisibility and universality of human rights, their equal status, and the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights.
'Genuinely held beliefs'
Concerns were raised regarding the wording and practical enforcement of the phrase 'genuinely held beliefs' and how they would apply to citizens. While the intention of this provision was to "give reassurance to people of faith that they are able to make moderately expressed statements of religious belief", it was noted by ALP Senator Andrew Bragg that the statement of belief was "unworkable and undesirable", not asked for, and that a number of religious institutions were concerned with its addition to the bill. The Australian Human Rights Commission found evidence that the statement may increase the difficulty in which sexual harassment is dealt with.
Citipointe Christian College
On January 28, 2022, Citipointe Christian College, a Pentecostal school in Brisbane's southside, released a new enrolment contract that asked parents to affirm that their child identified as their birth gender, and that homosexuality was a sin. It has been suggested that the school was anticipating the passing of the Religious Discrimination Bill; teachers had been asked to pray for the legislation to pass by the principal, who has also previously lobbied the State government and been a member of the advisory board of FamilyVoice, a right-wing Christian lobby group.
The contract was met with swift backlash, including condemnation from former student and Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Adrian Schrinner; Minister for Education Grace Grace, whose child is non-binary; and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is a member of the Pentecostal Church. Additionally, a petition started on change.org denouncing the contract reached 150,000 signatures within days of its creation.
On February 3, 2022, the school formally withdrew its contract after the backlash; however it had already been referred to the Non-State Schools Accreditation Board over the incident. Amidst the controversy, resignation threats from current staff, and a letter penned by 23 parents of students, the principal announced on February 4 that he would be taking extended leave.
- Details of the proposed bill, courtesy of the Attorney-General's Department
- House votes and proceedings of the February 9-10 debate