Queer and devout: Australians caught in the middle of religious discrimination bill

Religious freedom has been a hot topic since same-sex marriage was legalized in 2017.

Almost three years after the report of the Review of religious freedom was released, Attorney General Michaelia Cash is expected to present the religious discrimination bill to parliament this week.

While the bill has attracted support from some religious pressure groups, others have raised concerns, including Christian groups, Jewish groups, LGBTQ + groups, disability advocates, the Australian Medical Association and the Diversity Council Australia.

The last draft has not been made public, but two controversial aspects have been deleted: the “Folau clause”, which aimed to limit employers ‘control over employees’ statements of conviction, and the right of healthcare professionals to refuse proceedings. for religious reasons.

Yet critics warn that the bill could strengthen the ability of faith-based employers – including schools, hospitals, and senior care providers – to discriminate against employees based on their religious beliefs, relationship status or their gender identity, if this conflicts with the ethics of the organization. .

Gay people of faith tell the ABC that such discrimination is widespread.

Driven from the Church

Rosalie Dow Schmidt was raised with a Christian pastor as a father, and her teenage years revolved around her religious community, whether teaching Sunday school, playing in a worship group, or to work as a pastor for young people.

She believes church leaders revoked her position in the church after finding out she identified as gay.

Anthony Castle and Rosalie Dow Schmidt say they have never felt discriminated against because of their religion.(Provided: Anthony Castle)

“Quite mysteriously, a few months later the Church decided to no longer have a youth pastor and to spend that money on something else instead,” said the 31-year-old.

“From my perspective, it seemed pretty clear that I had been fired because I was gay. But because it was [an affirming church], they have not officially done so because it is against their policy. “

While Ms. Schmidt continued her involvement in Christian communities over the following years, she says she continued to face a setback for her gender identity.

Sydney-based Pastor Steff Fenton, who uses them / them pronouns, says they had a similar experience.

“I grew up in a church where I was taught that you cannot be both homosexual and Christian,” explains the 32-year-old.

“When I first found out that I was gay, it was something I was very ashamed of, and that I tried to suppress and resist.

When Mx Fenton had the courage to speak to his church minister, they said the response was quick and clear.

“I was taken out of everything [church] leadership roles and participation in the Church. It was very painful and dangerous for me. “

Steff Fenton wearing a navy long sleeve shirt, standing in front of a brightly painted fence.
Steff Fenton is co-chair of Equal Voices Sydney, a network of LGBTQIA + Christians and allies. (Provided: Steff Fenton)

“An additional way to discriminate”

Simon Rice, a law professor at the University of Sydney and a member of the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Group, says such discrimination is already permitted through religious exemptions in existing discrimination law, “including the Law on Discrimination. gender discrimination, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act and the SA Equal Opportunity Act “.

“The proposed new bill, as we last saw it, could provide an additional avenue to discriminate [LGBTQ+ people], which is already permitted under other laws. “

Professor Rice says the bill contains another provision that could affect members of the LGBTQ + community.

“There is what we call the ‘statement of belief’ provision, which allows anyone to express a religious opinion, without being subject to any discriminatory laws anywhere in Australia,” he said. .

While the bill can be amended before it goes to parliament, Professor Rice says based on the most recent version he read, this provision trumps all discrimination laws. States and Territories.

“This means that if you want to express your ‘religious belief’ about someone else, you will be absolutely free to do so,” he says.

“Nothing will prevent doctors from saying what they think about the lifestyle of their patients, hosts from saying what they think about single parents, and so on.

“There is a saving clause that says, ‘Not if it’s defamatory or if it incites hatred,’ so there is a limit. But I don’t think that reassures someone who knows that whenever he sees a service provider, his lifestyle, attributes, personality can be commented on without recourse.

Anthony Castle, community director of the LGBTQ + -affirming Activate Church, is concerned that the bill’s statement of conviction provision will leave young gay men exposed.

“It puts young homosexuals – especially those who have no choice about their church, family or religious schools in which they may be involved – at risk.

“We know from a lot of research that the type of message in communities that don’t assert themselves is incredibly damaging, but the prospect of leaving a family or church is also damaging. So it’s a losing situation- losing.”

Broad of the Houses of Parliament in Canberra
Chelsey Potter claims to have been assaulted in Parliament.(ABC News)

Debate on the need for a bill

The Religious Freedom Review recommended a religious discrimination bill to protect religious freedom across the country.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, dean of the University of Queensland Law School, said most states and territories – with the exception of New South Wales and South Australia – have laws pre-existing laws prohibiting religious discrimination.

“There is already coverage of this issue in much of the country, and this bill just adds, appropriately, a federal bill,” he said.

However, queer people of the ABC faith have spoken out to question the need for such a bill.

As a queer and Christian person, Mx Fenton says he was discriminated against on the basis of his gender identity, not his religion.

“Having a bill… that wants religious people to be protected from discrimination in a way that other people are not protected – it instills inequality and injustice.

“It’s actually, I would say, anti-Christian to support a bill like this.”

Ms. Schmidt says that between Christian holidays and including Christian prayers in Parliament, she feels her faith is privileged rather than persecuted.

“I don’t think anyone can say that Christianity is an outsider, in all honesty, or an oppressed group.”

Mr. Castle is also skeptical.

“There is this weird story you hear about people being discriminated against or persecuted for their faith in Australia, and it baffles me,” he says.

“People can laugh at you for having a religion. Christians are laughed at a lot, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s not the same as being discriminated against or disadvantaged.”

For Mx Fenton, it is painful to see Christian organizations – which allegedly share their belief system – seek additional protections to express discriminatory comments.

“It’s really hard when these are the people who are supposed to be your best allies,” they say.

“As a community of Christians, they should be the ones with whom we are most closely connected, and yet they are the ones who hurt us.”

However, others, like Dr Renae Barker, senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia School of Law, claim that the Religious Discrimination Bill – when read alongside the law on Sex Discrimination, Racial Discrimination Act and Age Discrimination Act – play an important role.

“I know a number of minority groups… who are very keen to see this legislation passed.

“Right now we have Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus in our society who are discriminated against on a daily basis and face fairly significant harassment and abuse in our society.

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