churches back ‘significantly improved’ bill


But several of those organisations told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age they liked the revised bill presented by Mr Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter 12 days ago, and are inclined to work on it with the government during the January consultation period.

Bishop Michael Stead from the Sydney Anglican Diocese – a leading contender to become Archbishop next year – was especially supportive of changes which mean religious charities will be counted as religious bodies regardless of their commercial activities.

“The second draft is a significant improvement over the first,” said Bishop Stead. “The time taken to get the drafting right has led to unhelpful and ill-informed speculation that the bill is granting new rights to discriminate.

“The bill does not confer extra rights on one group over another but ensures the proper protection of all rights under the law. Protecting individuals from religious discrimination is no less important than protecting individuals from other forms of discrimination.”

Peter Wertheim, who heads the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the bill offered “significant improvements” over the first draft. In particular, the new bill admits courts are “not well-suited” to judging religious conduct, and the legal test will now be whether “a person of the same religion” would accept or reject the conduct in question.

“The courts will no longer be required to rule on questions of religious doctrine, based on their own understanding,” Mr Wertheim said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter announced the updated draft in December.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Bilal Rauf, spokesman for the Australian National Imams Council, the peak Muslim body, said the revised bill itself was “commendable” in principle and an improvement on the first draft.

However, he said the bill did not provide Muslims with sufficient protection from vilification based on their faith, which remained a major concern for members of his community.

“Is there anything there that helps us? I think the short answer is no,” Mr Rauf said.

“It’s no good having swords if a major shield is not provided to protect against conduct which incites hatred and violence and creates a situation of risk and danger, and that’s exactly what is happening.

“While we have had many discussions with the Attorney-General’s office about it and they are sympathetic to it, the reality is the bill does not do anything to reflect that concern.”

Mr Wertheim also said clearer provisions were required to ensure faith-based charities, clubs and voluntary organisations could “give preference to people of their own faith” in their membership requirements.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, declined to comment on the revised bill. A spokesman previously said the Archbishop was “pleased the government has listened to the concerns of people of faith”.

The Religious Discrimination Bill is a product of Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review, which was initiated by the government after Australia voted “yes” to same-sex marriage.

LGBTI organisations have remained resolute critics of the bill’s first and second drafts. Anna Brown, chief executive of Equality Australia, said the new provisions were “radical” and could “roll back existing rights for all Australians under the guise of religious freedom”.

Announcing the second draft two weeks ago, Mr Morrison promised the law would be “a bill for all Australians” and that while “we were getting it right”, he had decided “we could get it even more right”.

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