Prime Minister Scott Morrison has abandoned a pledge to take action on discrimination against LGBTI students in unveiling the full Ruddock religious freedom review.
With Attorney-General Christian Porter alongside him, Morrison promised a Religious Discrimination Act to protect Australians’ religious freedoms, an issue which will likely be taken to the next federal election in May.
“You’ll understand that religious faith is synonymous with so many different ethnic cultures in Australia.
“The protection of religious freedoms is therefore synonymous with our identity and it’s particularly relevant in Australia, because of our incredibly diverse multicultural society.”
Ditching his promise to remove discrimination exemptions for LGBTI students in schools by the end of 2018 – which he had already failed to fulfil by not taking action last week – means the issue cannot be addressed until 2019, with the matter referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission.
If introduced, a Religious Discrimination Act would make discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs’ equivalent to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, among others.
“Australia is a secular democracy but that does not mean that Australians are a godless people,” Morrison said.
The Greens have spoken out against the proposals, saying that a Religious Discrimination Act should not serve to undermine state-based anti-discrimination laws.
“Religious freedom cannot be viewed in isolation, nor should it be used as a political weapon in an act of vengeance for the marriage equality vote,” said Greens Justice spokesperson Senator Nick McKim.
“We need a Charter of Rights to balance the right to religious freedom against other important rights, such as freedom from discrimination.”
Greens LGBTIQ+ Spokesperson Senator Janet Rice warned that the Religious Discrimination Act could weaken protections for queer people.
“Scott Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Act must not be a Trojan horse to expand discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, like his proposed discrimination in schools bill.
“Discriminating against someone because they are LGBTQ+ is not religious freedom, it’s discrimination. Plain and simple.
“The Prime Minister has already demonstrated he is out of touch with Australians who want discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in schools removed.
“Freedom of religion is not a licence to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people,” said Rice.
Morrison blamed Labor for delaying student protections after demanding Labor allow MPs a conscience vote.
Advocates warned that the Coalition’s bill, which would have allowed “indirect discrimination”, would have left LGBTI students and teachers vulnerable or potentially put them in more danger of being discriminated against.
Morrison also announced the creation of a Freedom of Religion Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission, something Phillip Ruddock’s review expressly recommended against.
Draft legislation for the bill is expected to be released early in 2019, with a mere seven parliament sitting days before the budget is announced in April, meaning the government – which is running a minority government – is unlikely to pass the bill before the election.