One of the specific criticisms from churches has been the definition of “religious body”, as these are given special protections over their ability to hire and fire staff on the basis of religious belief. Churches, religious schools and registered charities all qualify as religious bodies, but not groups that engage primarily in “commercial activities”.
In response to church concerns, Mr Porter last week announced he would update the bill to include religious hospitals and aged care homes as religious bodies. He described this as “probably the most significant change” to his draft bill.
During an address to the National Press Club, he observed that while religious groups might not be “deliriously happy” with what would be presented to parliament, he thought “there will ultimately be an endorsement”.
In their letter, copied to Mr Porter, the religious leaders say they remain “deeply concerned” about the lack of protections for religious bodies engaged in commercial activities. They say there will be “very serious unintended consequences” for the operation of faith-based charities, such as Vinnies’ op-shops and Christian campsites.
Asked whether the government was considering the churches’ letter and if the bill would be introduced to parliament next week, a spokesperson for Mr Porter said: “The Attorney-General has received hundreds of submissions by way of letters and other correspondence which has all formed part of the continuing consultation process on the Religious Discrimination Act. The Attorney-General will outline next steps in due course.”
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House