By Luke Beck
Conservative Christians are some of the biggest supporters of Scott Morrison’s religious discrimination bill. But they should be careful what they wish for. It won’t just be gay people, women and people with disabilities who lose out under the proposed law. Christians will be among the biggest losers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says religious freedom is something Australians hold dear as he announced changes to the religious discrimination act with Attorney-General Christian Porter.
The bill protects “statements of belief” from being the subject of a complaint under any federal, state or territory anti-discrimination law. The protection extends to statements made in writing or by spoken words that ridicule, humiliate or even intimidate another person.
Employers will be able to ridicule Christians in the workplace. For example, an atheist boss could put a poster above a Christian worker’s desk saying “Christianity is superstitious nonsense”. The boss could also say things like “Christianity is like a mental disorder” to a Christian during a job interview.Advertisement
Doctors will be able to humiliate Christian patients. For example, a Buddhist doctor could tell the Christian parents of an unwell child, “If you spent less time praying and more time caring about your child’s health, your child wouldn’t be this sick.”
Shopkeepers will be able to intimidate Christian customers. For example, a Muslim butcher will be allowed to intimidate a Christian customer. The butcher could tell the customer, “You Christian infidels better watch out: you will suffer punishment.”
Under existing anti-discrimination laws in most states and territories these examples would likely be unlawful discrimination. The Christians on the receiving end of this nastiness would be able to lodge complaints or even sue in the courts.
Scott Morrison’s religious discrimination bill changes this. The bill overrides state and territory laws and makes being nasty to Christians lawful. The bill also includes a mechanism to allow a federal minister to override any other federal, state or territory laws, such as work health and safety laws, that might prevent people making “statements of belief” like these.
The bill also harms Christians in other ways. The bill attempts to prevent Christians being discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs in hiring and firing decisions. Bosses can use “statements of belief” to be nasty to Christians, but technically won’t be allowed to refuse to hire them.
What matters is real life. In practice, the bill actually encourages employers to refuse to hire Christians.
The bill includes provisions that allow Christians to ignore workplace codes of conduct in certain circumstances. For example, Christian workers will not have to comply with some workplace codes of conduct that prohibit making comments on social media like those made by Israel Folau.
The reality is that many businesses take such codes of conduct seriously. Businesses have brands and reputations to think about. And many businesses genuinely want to create inclusive workplaces where gay people and other minorities feel welcome.
Under Scott Morrison’s religious discrimination bill, life will be easier for businesses if they simply do not hire Christians. That would avoid all the hassles, all the commercial impacts and the expensive lawyer fees involved in Christians not having to comply with workplace codes of conduct.
Of course, technically it will be unlawful to refuse to hire someone because they are a Christian. But the Christian has to prove that the reason they didn’t get the job was because they are a Christian. Actually proving that was the reason is extremely hard to do. And it is expensive, usually involving lawyers.
On the other hand, it is very easy for an employer to say that someone didn’t get a job because of a poor interview performance or because there was a better candidate.
The bible cautions people against making life difficult for others. Psalm 7:16 says “The trouble they make for others backfires on them.”
The religious discrimination bill was supposed to be a consolation prize for conservative Christians unhappy with the law allowing same-sex marriage. The bill was meant to give conservative Christians the right to be nasty to gays.
But Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter have stuffed up big time. The religious discrimination bill backfires, giving everyone else a right to be nasty to Christians.
Luke Beck is an Associate at the Castan Centre for Human Rights, and an Associate Professor of constitutional law at Monash University. He is also the author of Religious Freedom and the Australian Constitution: Origins and Future (Routledge, 2018).
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