Division over faith discrimination bill

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will introduce new religious freedom laws to parliament on Thursday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will introduce new religious freedom laws to parliament on Thursday.

A bill to boost protections for religious Australians by overriding state discrimination laws has been met with criticism from across the political spectrum.

The draft laws will be introduced to parliament by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday and are expected to go to a Senate inquiry for further scrutiny.

Equality Australia is worried it will take away existing anti-discrimination protections including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"The purpose ... is to allow people to say, write and communicate things that could be discrimination today," it said.

The right-wing Institute of Public Affairs think tank believes the bill is "too vague" to effectively shield people of faith.

"By adding more laws on top of bad laws, the government risks doing more harm than good," it said.

One of the most contentious parts of the bill, watered down to appease moderates, is a clause to shield people from discrimination laws for speaking about their beliefs.

Moderate Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman is concerned the bill gives primacy to religious views over others.

"I do worry that it is effectively giving primacy to one human right, if I can put it that way, in circumstances where the same protections are not provided for others," he told ABC radio on Wednesday.

"I am concerned about overriding state laws. That's one of the issues that I have raised and will continue to raise with the attorney-general."

Under the government's compromise proposal, statements of belief a reasonable person would consider intimidating, vilifying or malicious would not be protected.

Religious schools would be able to preference hiring someone of the same faith over another equally qualified candidate with different beliefs as long as this policy is publicly stated.

The long-promised bill has its roots in conservative disquiet over same-sex marriage.

Equality Australia is worried people will lose discrimination protections at work, school or while accessing health care to accommodate the religious beliefs of others saying discriminatory things.

For example, the organisation fears a boss, colleague, teacher or service provider would be protected for saying things including that it's a sin to be gay.

"Our laws should protect all of us, equally," Equality Australia said.

"People of faith and those without religious beliefs can be protected from discrimination without removing protections for others."

Meanwhile, the Australian Christian Lobby is unhappy with changes to the bill meaning workers can be held accountable for making statements about their belief in their own time if these breach an employer's code of conduct.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce wants to "make sure a person who has a faith doesn't have to hide it under a blanket".

Labor is considering the merits of the bill, wary about the risk of being wedged on the issue in the lead up to the election.

"We'll examine this - this shouldn't be a partisan issue," Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told reporters.

Australian Associated Press