As we settle into a new parliamentary term, the signs pointing to Federal Labor’s intentions regarding religious freedom protections are far from reassuring.
In addition to commitments made ahead of the election to protect religious Australians from discrimination, Labor has also promised to “strengthen laws and expand initiatives against discrimination, vilification and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics”.
These two priorities will likely come together in the expansion of Australia’s vilification laws, giving activists more tools to suppress the free speech of religious Australians.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ proposed amendments to the previous government’s Religious Discrimination Bill have given us a sneak peek of the kinds of legislative changes Labor might introduce.
Those amendments attempted to include a religious vilification provision in the RDB that would have made it unlawful for a person to engage in public conduct on the ground of someone’s religious belief or activity that a reasonable person would consider would threaten, harass, or vilify the other person.
The standard for suppressing speech in these amendments fell far below the international standards for protecting religious speech rights, which only limit free expression when necessary in exceptional circumstances.
It is also unclear how wide the scope of religious beliefs in the proposed amendments would have been. Would they have included political, areligious or anti-religious beliefs? After all, not holding a religious belief was included within the definition of “religious belief and activity” in the Religious Discrimination Bill.
While the Labor amendments seemed to protect religious people, HRLA has seen how vilification laws work in practice.
Passing religious vilification laws will include religious groups in the creation of the very weapons that can be used against them.
Practical experience of vilification laws points to their increasing misuse at the hands of activists who use them as weapons against people of faith. The result is the deterrence of free speech and unwanted opinions in the public sphere.
We know that at the state and territory level, human rights legislation has consistently watered down protections for religious freedom and been used as weapons to attack the public speech of religious Australians:
- Katrina Tait is a Catholic mother who was threatened by an activist with a homosexual vilification claim for saying drag queens are bad role-models for children. Unnecessary federal vilification laws will only hand activists another tool to harass Christians like Katrina into silence.
- Lyle Shelton is being sued under Queensland vilification law for his comments opposing Drag Queen Story Time events in Brisbane public libraries. Lyle was speaking up about an issue of important public interest. Unnecessary federal vilification laws will stifle the national debate on topics that truly matter and need to be debated in the public square.
- Daniel Scot and Daniel Nalliah were sued under Victorian religious vilification legislation for religious comments they made about Islam at a Christian conference to Christians. Unnecessary religious federal vilification laws will only promote religious disputes before secular courts. This will hurt all religious Australians.
Labor’s signaled approach will only weaken religious freedoms and empower opponents of religious Australians like Katrina, Lyle and the two Daniels.
Australians deserve better than laws that will have the practical effect of silencing their deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs.
Christians are increasingly feeling the chilling effects of these attacks on their right to profess their faith.
Labor should prioritise the passing of legislation that will give positive protections for the free exercise of religious freedom rights and removing the unnecessary tools used to attack and suppress the free speech of religious Australians.
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