Australia Queer and devout: The Australians caught in the middle of the religious discrimination bill

20:42  22 november  2021
20:42  22 november  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

Catholic schools urge families to fight state discrimination bill

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The religious discrimination bill has attracted support and criticism from various faith groups. (Unsplash: Ben White ) © Provided by ABC NEWS The religious discrimination bill has attracted support and criticism from various faith groups. (Unsplash: Ben White )

Religious freedom has been a hot-button issue since same-sex marriage was legalised in 2017.

Nearly three years after the report from the Religious Freedom Review was released, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is expected to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill into Parliament this week.

While the bill has attracted support from certain religious lobby groups, others have raised concerns, including some Christian groups, Jewish groups, LGBTQ+ groups, disability advocates, the Australian Medical Association and the Diversity Council Australia.

Discrimination risk under new religion law

  Discrimination risk under new religion law Opponents of the government's religious freedom bill say people could still be subject to discrimination, despite the legislation being watered down.The government is expected to endorse its long-awaited laws when the coalition party room meets on Tuesday.

The latest draft has not been publicly released, but two controversial aspects have reportedly been removed – the so-called "Folau clause", which sought to limit employers' control over employees' statements of belief, and the right for health practitioners to refuse procedures on religious grounds.

Still, critics warn the bill could strengthen the ability for faith-based employers — including schools, hospitals and aged-care providers — to discriminate against employees based on their religious belief, relationship status or sexual identity, if it's at odds with the organisation's ethos.

Queer people of faith tell the ABC such discrimination is rife.

Ousted from the Church

Rosalie Dow Schmidt was raised with a Christian minister as a father, and her teenage years revolved around her religious community, be it teaching Sunday school, performing in the worship band, or working as a youth pastor.

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She believes church leaders revoked her position in the church after finding out she identified as queer.

"Quite mysteriously, a couple of months later, the Church decided to no longer have a youth pastor and to spend that money on something else instead," says the 31-year-old.

"From my perspective, it seemed pretty clear that I was fired because I was gay. But because it was [an affirming church], they didn't officially do that, because that goes against their policies."

While Ms Schmidt continued her involvement with Christian communities in the subsequent years, she says she continued to face pushback for her sexual identity.

"The more I came out, the more I got kicked out."

Sydney-based pastor Steff Fenton, who uses they/them pronouns, says they had a similar experience.

"I grew up in a church where I was taught that you can't be both queer and Christian," says the 32-year-old.

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"When I first discovered that I was gay, it was something I was very ashamed about, and that I tried to suppress and resist.

When Mx Fenton worked up the courage to speak to their church minister, they say the response was swift and clear.

"I was removed from all [church] leadership roles, and participation in the Church. It was very painful and harmful for me."

'An additional route to discriminate'

Simon Rice, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney and member of the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Group, says such discrimination is already permissible thanks to religious exemptions in existing discrimination law, "including the Sex Discrimination Act, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act and the SA Equal Opportunity Act".

"The proposed new bill, as we last saw it, might provide an additional route to discriminate against [LGBTQ+ people], which is already permitted under other Acts."

Professor Rice says the bill contains another provision that could affect members of the LGBTQ+ community.

"There's what we're calling the "statement of belief" provision, which is licence to anyone to express a religious opinion, without being subjected to any discrimination law anywhere in Australia," he explains.

‘Sensible and balanced': Morrison makes the case for religious freedom bill

  ‘Sensible and balanced': Morrison makes the case for religious freedom bill The PM says the bill would provide protection for people of faith for the first time at a national level, overcoming inconsistencies in laws across Australia."This bill is a protection from the few who seek to marginalise and coerce and silence people of faith because they do not share the same view of the world," Mr Morrison said.

While the bill may be amended before it's introduced to Parliament, Professor Rice says that based on the most recent version he has read, this provision overrides all state and territory discrimination laws.

"It means that if you want to express your "religious belief" about someone else, you'll be absolutely free to do so," he says.

"There won't be anything to stop doctors saying what they think of their patient's lifestyles, accommodation providers saying what they think of single parents, and so it goes on.

"There's a saving clause that says, 'Not if it's vilifying or if it incites hatred', so there's a limit. But I don't think it's any comfort to somebody who knows that every time they see any service provider, their lifestyle, attributes, personality can be subject to comment without recourse."

Anthony Castle, community director at the LGBTQ+-affirming Activate Church, fears the bill's statement of belief provision could leave young queer people exposed.

"Instead of providing more protections for vulnerable Australians, this bill is looking to provide more protections for the people who are sharing hurtful messages," he says.

"It's putting queer young people – particularly those who don't have the choice about their church, their family or the religious schools they may be involved in – at risk.

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"We know from a lot of the research that the kind of messaging in non-affirming communities is incredibly damaging, but the prospect of leaving a family or church is damaging as well. So, it's a lose-lose situation."

Debate over the need for a bill

The Religious Freedom Review recommended a religious discrimination bill to protect freedom of religion across the country.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, Dean of Law at the University of Queensland, says that most states and territories – with the exception of New South Wales and South Australia – have pre-existing laws prohibiting religious discrimination.

"There's already coverage of that issue across a lot of the country, and this bill just adds, appropriately, a federal bill," he says.

However, the queer people of faith the ABC spoke to question the need for such a bill.

As a queer person and a Christian, Mx Fenton says they have experienced discrimination based on their sexual identity, not their religion.

"I feel unsafe in some spaces because I'm a queer person, [but] as a Christian, I've never felt that in my life," they say.

"To have a bill … that wants religious people to be protected against discriminations in a way that other people are not protected – that's instilling inequality and injustice.

"It's actually, I would say, anti-Christian to be supporting a bill like this."

Ms Schmidt says that between Christian holidays and the inclusion of Christian prayers in Parliament, she feels her faith is privileged, rather than persecuted.

"I don't think that anyone can say that Christianity is an underdog, in all honesty, or an oppressed group."

Disability advocates worried the Religious Discrimination Bill will lead to more discrimination in Australia, not less

  Disability advocates worried the Religious Discrimination Bill will lead to more discrimination in Australia, not less Disability advocates are warning the Morrison government's Religious Discrimination Bill doesn't go far enough to protect the rights of vulnerable communities. The bill, which was tabled in Parliament last Thursday by Scott Morrison, is the third version of a law promised by the Coalition government during the same-sex marriage debate."This bill brings clarity and it provides confidence that Australians of faith can have confidence they will be protected from discrimination," Mr Morrison said.

Mr Castle is similarly sceptical.

"There's this weird narrative that you hear about people being discriminated against or persecuted for their faith in Australia, and that's baffling to me," he says.

"People can make fun of you for having religion. Christians are made fun of a lot, and that's unfortunate, but that's not the same thing as being discriminated against or disadvantaged."

For Mx Fenton, it's painful to see Christian organisations – that purportedly share their belief system – seek further protections to voice discriminatory comments.

"It's really hard when it's people who are meant to be your greatest allies," they say.

"As a community of Christians, they should be the ones we are most closely aligned with, and yet, they're the people who are hurting us."

However, others like Dr Renae Barker, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia Law School, say the religious discrimination bill – when read alongside the Sex Discrimination Act, Racial Discrimination Act and Age Discrimination Act – plays an important role.

"I know a number of minority groups … who are very keen to see this legislation passed.

"Right now, we have Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu people in our society who are being discriminated against on a daily basis, and facing quite significant harassment and maltreatment in our society.

"I think we need to not forget that in a clash of rights between Christian activist groups and LGBTI groups," she says.

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