Scott Morrison indicated in an interview last week with Fairfax Media that enacting laws to protect religious freedoms is an important part of his agenda. This means the new prime minister wants to pass laws that would enable Christians to discriminate against members of the LGBTIQ community.
Religious protection laws have become a priority issue for the Liberal Party’s religious right, since marriage equality was legalised in December last year. And now with the nation’s first Pentecostal PM at the helm, this conservative element is one step closer to seeing a bill drafted to create them.
Since becoming the head of government, Morrison has placed his religion front and centre. During his first major speech as prime minister he invoked the power of prayer and spoke on the importance of ritual.
But this is nothing new. In his 2008 maiden speech in parliament, he asserted that his “personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda.” But, then he went onto challenge the separation of religion and state in this country, declaring that “Australia is not a secular country. It is a free country.”
This is despite section 116 of the Australian Constitution clearly outlining that the state cannot establish or promote any religion, and nor can religion be a prerequisite for office.
And now, after Australia finally lifted the prohibition on same-sex marriage, the new PM wants to pass laws that will protect members of the nation’s majority religion from discrimination, meaning it will allow them to treat people differently based on their sexuality.
Responding to same-sex marriage
In his recent interview, Morrison stated that laws protecting religious freedoms would be informed by the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedoms report, which was tabled in May. Although, it hasn’t actually been released to the public as yet.
The Ruddock inquiry was commissioned by former PM Malcolm Turnbull in response to the concerns of his colleagues over marriage equality laws. Morrison was a key figure who opposed these laws and led the push to have religious protections amendments made to the same-sex marriage bill.
Incidentally, Philip Ruddock, the head of the inquiry, was attorney general in 2004, when the Howard government amended the Marriage Act to explicitly outlaw same-sex marriage.
Pesky anti-discrimination laws
But, the interim report of a similar review was released to the public in November last year. The Human Rights Sub-Committee inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief found that “legal protection of religious freedom in Australia is limited.”
The report outlined that threats to religious freedoms aren’t due to the dominance of one religion over all others. But rather, the problem is posed by state anti-discrimination laws, “which do not allow for lawful differentiation of treatment by religious individuals and organisations”.
The authors of the report then go onto state that “religious exemptions within non-discrimination laws provide some protection,” which is a reference to the fact that religious exemption provisions already exist in certain Commonwealth legislation.
The right to discriminate
The Sex Discrimination Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Fair Work Act all contain exemptions for religious bodies, meaning these institutions have the right to treat an individual whose lifestyle doesn’t correspond with their beliefs in a way that would otherwise be classed as discriminatory.
As Macquarie University Professor Marion Maddox explained last January under the Sex Discrimination Act, these exemptions allow religious schools to sack a teacher if they’re in a same-sex marriage. And a student can be expelled because of their sexual orientation.
“The schools say that they don’t actually exercise those rights, even though they do. There are documented instances,” the professor said. And she added that even when they’re not exercised, they’re “an extra burden of threat hanging over those people.”
Freedom for some
And while the new religious freedoms laws are being touted as applying to all religions, those behind the push to legislate them are actually focused on the laws being enacted for the benefit of the Christian church specifically.
Professor Maddox outlined in an article in the Conversation last year that over the past twenty to forty years every time there was a move to establish any sort of a religious freedom law, the religious right fought against the move.
“The reason was because they were worried that would mean religious freedom for everybody, and not just for them,” Professor Maddox told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. And she explained that they were concerned that it “might limit their freedom to denounce other people’s religious beliefs.”
But, now that these forces feel that the status quo has been threatened, the debate has changed.
The professor explained that conservative Christian groups are now claiming they need protection, so they have the “freedom to be allowed to deny other people rights, or to refuse to provide services to other people on the grounds of religious beliefs.”
Doesn’t give a rat’s
And although Scott Morrison has been proclaiming that he loves all Australians, members of the LGBTIQ community haven’t been feeling it. In little over a week in office, the former immigration minister managed to make a series of damaging statements about LGBTIQ youth.
Morrison referred to counsellors who assist transgender youth as “gender whispers” in response to a widely discredited article, he described an inclusive Victorian school program on teen sexuality as making his “skin curl” and he refused to denounce gay conversion therapy.
Australian Greens Senator Janet Rice condemned Morrison’s assault on LGBTIQ youth. The Senator said in parliament, “It’s pretty clear the Prime Minister doesn’t give a rats about young LGBTIQ people.”
An act of God
Meanwhile, church groups around the nation are heralding Scott Morrison’s appointment as prime minister as a miracle of God. The Australian Christian Values Institute’s Warwick Marsh put the PM’s rise to power down to three days of prayer and fasting.
And while pastor Adam F Thompson welcomes Morrison as the nation’s 30th prime minister, the leader of the Voice of Fire Ministries had a warning for his parishioners, which sounded similar in nature to some of the rhetoric the PM has been spouting.
“If the prime minister right now doesn’t get elected in this next election there’s going to be darkness coming. And I’m not being negative,” the pastor told the crowd. “The laws are going to change where darkness is going to come and there will be persecution on the church.”
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.