Equality advocates and disability peak bodies have raised concerns around the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, which may infringe on the current Disability Discrimination Act in place to protect people with disability.
Civil society group, Equality Australia, representing women, LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Questioning) people, people with disability, and people of colour, has lodged a submission to the Government around their concerns about the Religious Discrimination Act, which finished its consultation period on October 2.
Equality Australia believes this Bill will introduce religious exemptions to the Disability Discrimination Act for the first time ever.
Chief Executive Officer of Equality Australia, Anna Brown, says, “This Bill privileges religious belief over other human rights – that’s fundamentally unfair.
“It’s important that people of faith are protected from discrimination but giving new privileges to people of faith, while overriding existing protections from discrimination for LGBTIQ people and others is unacceptable.
“Exemptions to these long-standing anti-discrimination laws are completely unacceptable. No religious belief should overwhelm the right of a person to live, work, study, and access healthcare with dignity.
“New, radical provisions go too far and hand a sword to people of faith to use their religious beliefs to attack others in our community. This Bill is not like other anti-discrimination legislation.”
Well-known disability activist, Carly Findlay, has also submitted her own concerns about the Bill to Government, explaining the impact it will have on accessing healthcare with dignity.
“Unwanted prayers from strangers are not helpful. They imply I’m less than others, that Jesus loves me even if no one else does. They say I’ve committed a sin and need forgiveness. And prayers haven’t helped. Medicine has helped,” says Ms Findlay, who lives with a rare skin condition, Ichthyosis.
National peak body, People with Disability Australia (PWDA), is deeply concerned with any Bill that infringes on the current protections in place for people with disability. Chief Executive Officer of PWDA, Jeff Smith, says, “PWDA agrees with the Australian Human Rights Commission that while improving protection against religious discrimination is needed, this cannot be at the expense of other human rights, such as for people with disability.
“In its current form, the Bill will allow discriminatory statements against people with disability.
“People with disability can face discrimination in seeking healthcare, with some health facilities not fully accessible, or at work. We need to be able to take action if this happens to us.
“People with disability rely on support workers and deserve to live their lives free from discrimination. We are concerned about any Bill that override the protections of the Disability Discrimination Act, which have been hard won by people with disability over many years.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) are also uneasy by the precedent this Bill could present in upholding safe, healthy and respectful workplaces.
ACTU believes this Bill privileges the rights of religious organisations over workers’ rights to be treated fairly and equally in the workplace, which is already an issue for people with disability in the workforce.
Assistant Secretary of the ACTU, Liam O’Brien, says, “This Bill not only retains these exemptions, but gives employers even more power to discriminate against workers on religious grounds.”
In Equality Australia’s submission, the organisation outlined that Section 41 of the Religious Discrimination Bill states it overrides anti-discrimination protections in Federal, State and Territory laws.
Equality Australia believes it will allow anyone to express certain ‘statements of belief’ as long as it is made by a religious person or about religion, adding that it will introduce a huge complexity into discrimination complaints.
The organisations say Section 41 would allow statements informed by religious views, that would otherwise be considered discrimination, provided they are made in good faith, are not malicious and are not likely to harass, vilify, incite hatred or violence on a person or group of persons.
Since the religious statements of belief do not have to come from any doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a religion, the persons claim to their religious beliefs could be limitless, says Equality Australia.
The sort of statements Equality Australia allege could be protected under section 41 include:
• A disability support worker saying to the parent of a child with autism ‘I believe prayer can cure your child’s disability’
• Religious support workers who tell someone that their disability is a punishment for their sins could be free of consequences from their employer.
The Religious Discrimination Bill has created a lot of contention in Australia, with a few religious bodies speaking out about concerns they have around the Bill in its current form.