‘Deal or no deal’: Confusion over religious discrimination laws
Key supporters of controversial religious discrimination laws have been left in the dark as their letters to the Attorney-General go unanswered.
Under questioning at a parliamentary hearing on Thursday, the Australian Christian Lobby confirmed it had no idea about a deal to protect gay students from discrimination in religious schools.
“I have not been advised by the Prime Minister's Office or by the Attorney-General’s office as to the status of any such deal,” deputy director Dan Flynn said.
“What I do know is that in search for the same answer that I have written to the Attorney-General and asked for clarification referring to the reports and if there was any such deal.
“I have written to the Attorney-General, as far as I know, I have not had a reply to that letter.”
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Mr Flynn confirmed that if the deal were to go ahead, the ACL would withdraw its support for the legislation.
Greens senator Janet Rice argued the ACL was angling for Christian schools to continue to discriminate.
“You want to keep that right in order to support this bill,” she said.
“It's to keep the right of schools to discriminate against same-sex attracted and gender-diverse students.”
In December, it was reported Liberal moderates had struck a deal with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash for amendments to be made to the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students, in exchange for their support for the bill.
But just days later, the Attorney-General said such reforms could face a year-long wait.
“I really wanted to make that distinction clear: this is a bill to protect against religious discrimination,” the Attorney-General said at the time.
Christian Schools Australia’s Mark Spencer also told the Senate hearing the group had not been informed of a deal, and were first made aware of the proposal through the media.
“We wrote to the Attorney-General, the shadow Attorney-General … I can't recall whether we got a written response,” he said.
“I don’t recall receiving one.”
Bishop Michael Stead confirmed the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney was in the same boat.
“I still have had no further contact with the Attorney-General or the Prime Minister and as much in the dark as you are.”
The religious discrimination legislation was a key election promise from Scott Morrison ahead of the 2019 election.
But legal experts have raised concerns the bill could be unconstitutional.
In a submission to the Senate inquiry, constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey said a major redraft of two key sections may need to be redrafted.
“It is confounding to contemplate why these provisions of a highly contentious bill would be drafted in such a provocative manner,” Professor Twomey said.
“In my view, if the Commonwealth wishes to secure this proposed law against a future constitutional challenge it should redraft section 11 and 12.”
Section 11 would empower religious schools to employ staff who support their religious beliefs, while Section 12 outlines that religious statements of belief are immune from legal consequences under anti-discrimination law.
Of most concern is that the legislation could be used to override other human rights and cause confusion.
The Law Council agreed, and added the bill may not ultimately offer Australians more protections.
“The effect of clause 12 is to override existing rights and it privileges the manifestation of religious beliefs over other human rights. It is contrary to international law,” Katherine Eastman said.
The committee has been fraught with tension, with several non-government senators lamenting the hearing’s short time frame and the firm hand of Liberal chairwoman Sarah Henderson.
At one stage, Senator Henderson suspended the committee after Labor’s Deb O’Neill refused to back down from a line of questioning, which the chairwoman declared was out of order.
The Senate committee is one of two parliamentary inquiries into the legislation. Both committees are due to report back to parliament on February 4.
Originally published as ‘Deal or no deal’: Confusion over religious discrimination laws
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