Australian PM Scott Morrison Says Govt Will Protect Religious Freedom

By Mimi Nguyen Ly

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Dec. 13 that the government intends to draft new laws, being reviewed in the Religious Discrimination Bill, that would make it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s religious beliefs.

The Morrison government plans to seek feedback on the draft legislation to be presented to Parliament in early 2019. The laws will be part of the Coalition’s promise ahead of the elections due May 2019.

If passed, they will be the first stand-alone laws to protect Australians’ freedom of belief.

Under the proposed laws, however, it will not be illegal to “offend, insult, or humiliate” a person based on their religious beliefs, as was the case with the controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that has been criticised as a threat to free speech.

Morrison also announced that the government would appoint a freedom of religion commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“For those who think that Australians of religious faith don’t feel that the walls have been closing in on them for a while, they’re clearly not talking to many people in religious communities,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney on Dec. 13.

“It’s about protecting Australians and an Australian’s right to believe in what they want to believe.”

WATCH: Former Labor leader Mark Latham discusses the need to protect religious freedom in Australia

In a media release on the same day, Morrison said Australia is a place where the rights of religious institutions to maintain their distinctive religious ethos are respected.

“Our laws should reflect these values.”

Religious Freedom Review

The prime minister’s announcement is a response to the religious freedom review (pdf), chaired by Philip Ruddock, which was also formally released on Dec. 13.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull initiated the review on Nov. 22, 2017.

The review concluded that more can be done to further protect the right to freedom of religion under Australian law, and set forth 20 recommendations to that end.

The review and its recommendations were handed to the Turnbull government for consideration on May 18. Parts of it were leaked to the press in October.

Morrison announced the government has accepted 15 of the 20 recommendations “either directly or in principle,” and said that 14 of them are “to be implemented as soon as practicable.”

“Australia is a secular democracy but that does not mean that Australians are a godless people,” he told The Australian.

“Australians have a diversity of faith and ­religious backgrounds and these should all be respected.

“This is an essential part of multiculturalism, in the same way no Australian should be discriminated against for their ethnicity or sexuality. Protecting freedom of belief is central to the liberty of each and every Australian.”

According to the last of the 15 recommendations, Recommendation 15, the proposed legislation—to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, including on the basis that a person does not hold any religious belief—will necessitate a new Religious Discrimination Act to be drafted and passed, or the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to be amended. For this recommendation, the government said it will be seeking bipartisan support before presenting the bill to Parliament.

The government deemed the remaining five recommendations as needing further consideration and will consult with states and territories, as well as possibly the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC).

Among them was a recommendation that concerned the rights of students’ sexuality with that of religious schools.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said religious discrimination stood as a final “pillar” alongside anti-discrimination laws for race, sex, age, and disability.

“This is the fifth and final pillar of an overarching architecture that prevents discrimination directed to Australians based on attributes which should never be the basis for discrimination,” Porter said, according to AAP.

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