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Australia: New laws proposed to protect religious freedom

May 2021 | by Evangelical Times

Israel Folau SOURCE Flickr/David Molloy
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A bill that would make it harder to discriminate against a person on the basis of their faith and genuinely held belief has been backed by a parliamentary committee in New South Wales (NSW), Australia.

Mark Latham, leader of NSW’s One Nation party, has put forward amendments to change the state’s anti-discrimination laws to include protections for religious freedom.

According to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, his proposals have the backing of nearly all 14 members of a cross-party parliamentary committee, who examined his amendments to the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act and concluded his bill had merits as a ‘template for reform’.

Mr Latham’s bill, if passed into legislation, would make it illegal for anyone to be discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

While this would bring NSW into line with other Australian states, his bill goes further, to protect religious employees from being sacked for making out-of-work comments in line with their religious beliefs.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the proposed law would recognise limited exceptions, including for ‘brand ambassadors’ who agree not to express views contrary to an organisation’s values.

It would also make provision for not-for-profit religious organisations, so they would not be accused of discrimination for ‘engaging in certain conduct because of their beliefs’.

The proposal has echoes of the high-profile legal battle that embroiled former rugby star Israel Folau. Comments he made in 2019, reflecting his biblical stance on matters such as same-sex marriage and homosexuality, caused international uproar.

His statements on Twitter and Instagram, which came in response to the Tasmanian Parliament passing amendments to the Birth, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act to allow gender to be changed on birth certificates by a simple statutory declaration, saw his contract terminated by Rugby Australia.

As reported in ET at the time, although he commenced proceedings in the Fair Work Commission alleging that his contract had been terminated on the basis of religion, he could not reach a settlement with Rugby Australia.

However, the Sydney Morning Herald also reported that opposition was mounting to the bill, with an open letter from a coalition of 17 organisations, such as Equality Australia, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Uniting Church in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, speaking out against it.

Last year, Mr Latham drew criticism across Australia when he introduced The Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. The legislation aimed to allow parents to withdraw their children from a class or programme that would promote LGBT relationships.

It would also prohibit school counsellors from affirming a trans or gender diverse student or providing them with any support or referrals to gender-affirming support.