By Mark O’Brien
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania
CANBERRA, Australia — As the Australian government tries to overhaul anti-discrimination legislation, the Christian lobby is rejecting any effort to eliminate religious exemptions in the bill.
The draft of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill integrates five current discrimination laws into one law, but it allows religious organizations to discriminate against certain groups lawfully when hiring or firing someone.
“Anti-discrimination laws should be about protecting those affected by discrimination, not protecting those who conduct the discrimination themselves,” said New South Wales independent MP Alex Greenwich, who has been a long-term campaigner for gay and lesbian rights.
Greenwich and others urged Prime Minister Julia Gillard to reconsider whether the religious exemptions should be allowed, especially when taxpayer money is involved.
“I hope the government seizes the opportunity of this review,” Greenwich told ABC News, “to make some real change to help those who are affected by discrimination on a daily basis.”
But Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby, said religious groups need to be able to hire people who share and reflect their values and philosophies.
“The church wants to reflect through its staff the philosophy of Christ,” he said to Sky News.
Wallace also downplayed the issue and described the effort to characterize the exemption as a “freedom” to discriminate gays and other people they consider sinners as “a complete beat-up.”
“I’m not aware of any Christian organization that has refused to hire anyone (based on their sexuality,” he told reporters. “I’ve looked.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Australian Human Rights Commission received nearly two dozen complaints in 2012 from people claiming they were discriminated against at work based on their sexuality. While the commission kept no record of whether the work was with a religious organization, its president said some of the complaints were against religious groups.
“We can and do receive complaints about discrimination in employment with faith-based organizations on the ground of sexual preference,” Gillian Triggs told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Some critics of the exemption also worry that faith-based groups, including schools and hospitals, will be able to refuse to hire women who are pregnant or potentially pregnant.
Anna Brown, the advocacy and strategic litigation director of the Human Rights Law Centre, called the bill a “missed opportunity” to narrow the broad exemptions available to religious groups.
Still, Triggs called the bill an important first step in creating a coherent federal human rights system. But she added that more work needs to be done.
“In a secular society such as Australia,” she said, “one does not want to give any sort of particular priority to one freedom above the right of people to non-discriminatory employment.”
For further information, please see:
Sydney Morning Herald — Religious Groups Free to Discriminate Against Pregnant Women — 17 January 2013
Sydney Morning Herald — Review ‘Missed Opportunity’ to Separate Church and State — 17 January 2013
ABC News — Christian Lobby Rejects Push to Remove Religious Exemptions — 16 January 2013
Herald Sun — Sinners Story a Complete Beat-up, Says Australian Christian Lobby — 16 January 2013