Religious Freedom Needs an Effective Religious Discrimination Bill

Opponents of the Religious Discrimination Bill are mounting a concerted campaign and moving another line of attack against the long-awaited piece of legislation. The Attorney General and the Coalition Government have been signalling to faith communities that they need to lower their expectations after opponents of the RDB have called for removal of protections for reasonable religious speech (the so-called “Folau clause”) that were included in the first and second draft of the Bill circulated in 2019. If Attorney General Cash backpedals on this key protection, it will leave many religious Australians vulnerable who are subject to employer overreach into how they express their faith in their own personal time.

Religious freedom has been on the agenda since 2017 at the time of the same sex marriage postal vote. The Ruddock Religious Freedom Review in 2018 identified that religious freedoms are inadequately protected in Australian law and recommended the Federal Government enact an RDB. However, it was Rugby Australia’s sacking Israel Folau in 2019 for posting a Bible verse meme on Instagram that poured fuel on the fire and made every Australian sit up and take notice. For most Australians, what happened to Folau did not pass the sniff test. Should an employer be able to police a religious employee’s speech outside of work?

When the first draft of the RDB was released, it included a clause that would prevent employers from restricting reasonable religious speech outside of work. RDB opponents say that this privileges religious belief and goes beyond ‘traditional’ anti-discrimination legislation. According to RDB opponents, an employer should be able to punish an employee for what they say in their own time.

HRLA regularly works with clients who need real protections from overreach by employers into their conduct outside of work. This is not just an issue for Israel Folau, it is an issue for thousands of religious Australians who want the same freedoms as every other group to share their religious views and express their beliefs in their own time. Australian law only provides patchwork protection for religious communities. State-based anti-discrimination laws don’t protect religious belief at all in some states like NSW. To better understand why an RDB that protects personal speech rights is so important, here are some HRLA cases that could have been helped by an effective Religious Discrimination Act. There are plenty more examples of cases on our website.

Case 1 – Ian Shepherd the teacher who was investigated for his social media posts

Ian is a teacher in the Northern Territory who was targeted by activists over his private social media posts. The Department of Education launched an investigation into Ian’s private social media use, and he almost lost his job. The Department dropped the investigation after HRLA helped Ian. Just like Israel Folau, a Religious Discrimination Act could have protected Ian’s expression of his religious beliefs outside the workplace.

Watch Ian talk about his ordeal here.

Case 2 – Max the teacher who was fired over his transgender convictions

Max is an experienced teacher in NSW who was suspended and then fired for his Christian transgender convictions. Religious beliefs are not protected in NSW, which gave Max limited options. With the help of HRLA, a favourable settlement was reached. A Religious Discrimination Act could have protected Max both inside and outside work when he spoke up about his religious beliefs.

Read Max’s story here.

To be effective the RDB must protect the religious rights of people like Ian and Max. An RDB that doesn’t protect workers’ expression of their religious beliefs outside the workplace will be of limited use.

The Coalition Government went to the election saying that they would introduce a religious Discrimination Bill that will protect religious Australians from discrimination. Religious communities don’t want a rubber stamp on a hollow promise.

The Government must maintain its course on delivering an effective RDB and not bow to pressure from anti-religious opponents who would rather see the RDB fail completely than give religious Australians equal protection under the law.