Faith leaders put pressure on Labor to support religious discrimination bill

Religious leaders have said a pared-back version of the Coalition’s religious discrimination legislation would “deserve bipartisan support”, upping pressure on Labor to declare a position.

In a joint statement, leaders including the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the Australian National Imams Council argued that the “more controversial” measures appear to have been removed.

On Monday the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said he “absolutely” supports religious freedom and would “always support faith communities” but protecting that right should not involve “taking away the freedom of others”.

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Albanese also suggested the government had not “worked in a bipartisan way” because it has yet to show the opposition the legislation.

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has been briefed on the content of the bill, but Labor insists it won’t comment until the bill is finalised, saying Liberal backbenchers are still negotiating with the attorney general, Michaelia Cash.

Cash has told Labor the bill will go to the Coalition party room on Tuesday and be introduced into the lower house this week, although some Liberal backbenchers still favour introduction in the Senate so an inquiry and amendments settle its final form before they have to deal with it.

The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, said on Friday the government agreed to introduce the bill this year as part of a deal on net zero emissions with the Nationals.

Last week, Guardian Australia revealed two of the most controversial provisions had been removed: the so-called Folau clause preventing employers sanctioning employees for religious speech; and sections allowing health providers to refuse treatment on the basis of “conscientious objection”.

Despite the changes, Liberal moderates including Katie Allen are still reserving their right to cross the floor on the bill, while conservative MP George Christensen is concerned the bill still doesn’t go far enough.

The bill still allows faith-based institutions, such as religious schools, to positively discriminate against people who do not share their faith, something the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said is necessary to maintain their “distinctive faith-based ethos”.

In the joint statement, the religious leaders said they “would have preferred” the Folau clause and conscientious objection be “retained in some form”.

But they said they welcome the fact it will “protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs, and will allow faith-based organisations to act in accordance with their doctrines, tenets and beliefs without this being disallowed as religious discrimination”.

“With the more controversial measures reportedly having been removed from the bill, there appears to be no sensible reason for it to generate a deeply polarising debate over religion,” they said.

“If the reports about the key provisions of the bill are correct, it will deserve bipartisan support.”

Anthony Albanese has called for the Coalition to show Labor the finalised legislation.
Anthony Albanese has called for the Coalition to show Labor the finalised legislation. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

On Monday the financial services minister, Jane Hume, said the bill is likely to face “significant scrutiny”, including referral to a Senate committee.

Asked if the bill overrides other minorities’ rights, Hume said that the current draft “doesn’t override the religious exemptions in any existing anti-discrimination legislation”.

The bill is expected to be introduced in the lower house and would face great difficulty in the Senate, where crossbench senators Jacqui Lambie, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff will oppose it, making Labor support critical.

Albanese accuses prime minister of ‘spin’

Earlier, Albanese told ABC Radio that all that was known about the bill was “spin that’s come from the prime minister’s office”.

“I’ve spoken to religious leaders … who are very disappointed that the government, on an issue which should not be an issue of partisan politics, has not worked in a bipartisan way across this parliament, as Scott Morrison is always seeking to divide rather than bring people together.”

Albanese told reporters in Canberra it “should not be a partisan issue” because prohibiting religious discrimination “should be an issue which just unites the country”.

Instead, the government had waited until “the end of the third term, the last two sitting weeks” to introduce legislation, he said.

Christian lobby says bill doesn’t address ‘flashpoints’

In a statement, the Australian Christian Lobby’s director of politics, Wendy Francis, said she was pleased the bill will give religious institutions including schools the ability to prefer to employ faith-based staff, and overrides state-based laws that could prevent such religious preference.

The Christian lobby also welcomed a protection for statements of belief that overrides Tasmanian anti-discrimination law, which prohibits speech that offends, insults or humiliates people based on protected attributes such as sexuality, sex, age or disability.

“However, the bill does not address some of the flashpoints for religious hostility in the real world,” Francis said.

She said these include: “Overreach of employers into the employee’s private speech; the misuse of hate speech laws against religious expression; threats to churches and families from LGBT conversion laws banning prayer and counselling; [and] the increasing attacks on the ability of Christian schools to operate according to their ethos.”