Faith leaders unite to oppose Queensland laws that threaten religious freedom

An open letter to Queensland Premier Steven Miles signed by 17 signatories representing leaders of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions has warned the state government that proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws will “significantly undermine the freedom of faith organisations to employ persons in accordance with their ethos”.

Signatories to the letter include Brisbane Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Council of Imams (Queensland) chair Yousef Peer and Jewish Board of Deputies Jason Steinberg.

Their letter states:

“[The legal changes] will disallow faith communities and schools from selecting staff who would uphold one of the core purposes of a faith community or school – that of maintaining a culture and ethos consistent with the requirements of that faith.”

The government is now considering feedback received during a consultation period of only one month.

HRLA provided a submission, in which we argued that the draft bill “strongly preferences non-discrimination rights at the expense of fundamental rights of religious liberty and associated freedoms of conscience, speech and association” and is therefore fundamentally flawed.

The amended law would allow Christian organisations to hire Christian staffbut only for roles in which “teaching, observance or practice of a religion is a genuine occupational requirement”. There is a presumption under this test that no such occupational requirement exists when hiring, for example, a maths or science teacher.

This approach demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religious freedom laws in Australia. The reality is that many faith organisations and educational institutions aim to foster a culture of faith, which requires hiring staff members who not only possess the necessary technical skills but who can demonstrate a willingness to support and uphold the beliefs and ethos of the organisation.

Faith leaders have also explained the way the draft laws breach international law:

“The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has signed, declares that religious freedom is one of the most fundamental human rights, and should be preserved except where absolutely necessary; this is not upheld in the proposed anti-discrimination legislation,” the letter said.

“The proposed changes contravene Article 18.4 of the ICCPR, which affirms the rights of parents to ensure the faith and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

Islamic College of Brisbane chief executive Ali Kadri said that parents who send their children to religious schools “typically wanted the teachers to share the religious values of that school”:

"What this bill proposes is very vaguely changing the rights we have to require our staff members to follow certain ethos and values while they're in our institution," he said.

"It's trying to solve a problem, which doesn't exist. It pitches rights against rights, and it leads to culture wars in educational institutions where the main focus should be education."

The Queensland state government is planning to introduce the legislation shortly before the state election on 26 October 2024.