On Sunday, December 5, over 200 people participated in a rally in Sydney, Australia, to protest the federal Religious Discrimination Bill and called on prime minister Scott Morrison to “Kill The Bill.” The rally was organized by LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group Community Action for Rainbow Rights (CARR) with support from other civil society groups.
This is the latest attempt to resist a controversial set of bills being pushed by the conservative Liberal-National coalition government led by prime minister Morrison. A similar demonstration was also held by queer rights groups in the city of Brisbane on Saturday.
The demonstration on Sunday came shortly after the State parliament of Victoria passed the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill on December 4. The State law makes it illegal for faith-based schools and institutions run by religious organizations to discriminate against people based on their sexuality or gender identity.
Victoria is the latest State to enact a law to protect teachers and students from the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination in educational institutions run by religious organizations, joining the likes of Tasmania, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. The new law in Victoria is significant at a time when the federal government is being widely criticized for attempting to override such protections.
The federal Religious Discrimination Bill and associated bills like the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 are being widely criticized as attempts to exempt institutions run by religious organizations, including schools, hospitals and aged-care centers, from federal anti-discrimination laws for sexual minorities.
“The religious Right wants a green light to sack LGBTI teachers and spout heinous bigotry, shielded from all consequences,” said April Holcombe, CARR spokesperson. “We’re going to make sure they don’t get it, and can’t wind back the clock on hard-won rights for LGBTI people and women.”
According to reports, the federal bill has provisions that apart from protecting individual religious freedoms and the right to associate with a religious body or organization, also allow for religious bodies to deny services as they deem fit and give preferences to individuals who engage in or profess a particular religious belief or practice.
If passed, the federal bill will not consider religious bodies to be discriminating “by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion.”
Activists and queer rights advocates have argued that the bill will dilute the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, gender, sexual identity, and marital status, among other things. This led to a section of Liberal Party legislators in the ruling bloc striking a compromise to remove Sex Discrimination Act exemptions for schools in the bill.
Under pressure from the opposition bloc, especially the Labor and Green Party MPs, the government also failed to push through the legislation in the recent parliamentary session and conceded to two parliamentary inquiries on the bill. Despite the concessions, legal experts and queer activists still find the bill to be suspect.
On the other hand, conservative Christian groups like the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia, who welcomed the bill, have opposed the government bloc’s attempts to remove Sex Discrimination Act exemptions and have threatened to withdraw their support if the new version is tabled in the upcoming parliamentary session in February.
Coming just months ahead of the upcoming federal elections, the bill also raises the stakes for the conservative government which is trying to regain lost ground among its conservative and religious Christian vote base through its passage.