The Religious Discrimination Bill has come under fire from advocacy groups and professional associations across Australia for its potential to excuse discrimination against people with disability on the basis of faith.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has recommenced its inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, which was Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s election pledge, today with two days of public hearings before it reports on 4 February.
Disability advocates and representatives submitted their views on the Bill, including major concerns about how it might impact access to health care, education, employment, housing, aged care and support services for Australians with disability.
Meanwhile, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee, which is also investigating the Bill, will be holding hearings on 20 and 21 January, then reporting its findings by the same date - 4 February.
More than 20 disability advocacy organisations have signed a joint statement against the Bill outlining their concerns.
The organisations include People With Disabilities Australia (PWDA), Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA), Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), First Peoples Disability Network Australia (FPDN), and Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA).
The statement notes that while the organisations support religious freedom as essential to democracy, it should not come at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others and that the Bill will override existing protections for people with disability from humiliating, insulting, ridiculing and offensive behaviour.
The statement also outlines that a large proportion of disability support services are faith-based, meaning recipients of services may face discrimination from providers protected under the Bill.
“We are concerned the Religious Discrimination Bill will allow people with disability to be demeaned by statements of religious belief that are permitted under this Bill, creating an unsafe and harmful environment,” state the organisations.
“We are also concerned that there may be instances where a person with disability is excluded or prevented from accessing services altogether because of the faith-based nature of the service or the beliefs of available support workers.”
The statement includes examples of the Bill in practice, including:
- A person with disability who seeks supports from a faith-based organisation, or applies for a job at such an organisation, may be asked to subscribe to a demeaning, faith-based view of disability
- A teacher at a faith-based school may be required to teach such a demeaning view to students with disability, or other views inconsistent with the equal human rights and dignity of people with disability
- A person with disability may be told:
- That their disability is a “punishment from God” for their, or their parents’, sins
- That their disability can be “healed” by prayer or by “living virtuously”
- That they deserve to suffer from their disability for what they have done “in a previous life”
There is also a provision in the Bill to limit the control that regulating bodies can have over members of their profession. For instance, allowing health practitioners, lawyers and other professionals to make harmful statements about disability in the name of religion without any consequences from their regulatory bodies.
The disability organisations’ state, “This will make people with disability feel unsafe in accessing important services. It will also increase the already significant barriers to speaking up that people with disability experience.
“The Religious Discrimination Bill will encourage prejudice, stigma, denigration, division, and discrimination against people with disability, and undermine all efforts to build and sustain an inclusive Australia.
“It is counter to our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, the vision of Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031, the purpose of the Disability Royal Commission, and the principles of dignity and equity that Australian disability communities continue to fight for.”
While organisations have banded together to make sure the voices of people with disability are heard, Ana Pike has put her personal efforts towards the cause as well.
The 30-year-old Tasmanian woman with disability and chronic illness, living in Hobart/Nipaluna, is a disability and intersectional rights activist and has started a petition against the Bill.
The petition has almost 700 signatures and Ms Pike hopes to reach at least 1,000 over the coming month.
She believes it is particularly important to preserve the laws against discrimination of people with disability that the Tasmanian State Government has in place.
“Others and I believe if the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill were to pass, instead of closing the gap, we would be widening it between those who belong to marginalised groups and those who don’t,” Ms Pike explains.
“Additionally, if this legislation were to pass, it would override section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act.
“With Tasmania having the highest disability population in Australia, this would unequivocally affect the community as they are the highest cohort that is affected by section 17, which is meant to protect people from intimidating, insulting, offensive, and ridiculing behaviour, with 35 percent of complaints in 2020 and as high as 50 percent in past years to Equal Opportunity [Commission].
“As well as other actions, we decided to start the petition for the people to feel like they had a voice and to let the Federal Government know that our lives are important, and we aren’t going to put up with the types of discrimination of the past anymore.”
Ms Pike adds that she does not believe the Bill is necessary and it will only add a preference of religious rights over all others.
With “gaps” and “loopholes” already existing in legislation protecting marginalised people, for example around reasonable adjustments in higher education, Ms Pike believes the Religious Discrimination Bill will only cause damage. To view her petition, you can visit the change.org website.