Coalition shouts the religious lobby a round or two


Before Christmas the government introduced a second bill – the second drink on the house.

Human rights lawyers say the bill’s protections for “conscientious objectors” might, for instance, allow doctors to withhold hormone therapies from transgender people.

Israel Folau and Rugby Australia have settled out of court and wished each other well. Credit:Justin McManus

The religious are being given not just a shield but a sword. In this respect, writes Sydney University Law Professor Simon Rice, “The bill is unique, not just in Australia but, it seems, anywhere in the western world.”

Discrimination lawyers say the bill might allow a boss to tell a gay employee they’re “broken”, a childcare provider to tell a single mother she’s evil for depriving her child of a father, and a teacher to tell a disabled student their disability is a trial imposed by God. The right to demean trumps other federal and state anti-discrimination laws. As long as the bigotry stems from an honestly held “religious belief” and falls short of harassment, vilification or “serious” intimidation – regular intimidation being fine – believers have a green light to traumatise others. Even if these believers have a shaky grasp on theology. Hell, even satanists can join in.

“The bill would, for instance, allow a satanist hairdresser to say, very publicly, what they think about the crucifix around a customer’s neck,” writes Professor Rice in The Conversation.

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And even someone without religious beliefs might be enabled to inappropriately air their earnestly held pity for believers, still in thrall to fairytales.

Do we really want the government encouraging this nasty free-for-all?

Alas, such unprecedented privileges aren’t enough for some religious conservatives, who want yet more freedom to wield their swords in schools and discriminate in employment. They’re holding Attorney-General Christian Porter over a barrel. NSW Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells spits on the bill – she says better no bill than one so “flawed” and “complex”.

Religion, as we know, retails illusions. A man walking on water. A sea parting. A prophet with a direct line to the almighty. Most insidious in a secular age, however, is the illusion of martyrdom and victimhood, the idea the religious need saving from the pitchfork-carrying mob. Or even from a 16-year-old French girl called Mila.

During Mila’s livestream on Instagram, a Muslim boy asked her out. She declined, saying she was gay. The boy called her a “dirty lesbian” and “dirty whore.” Mila responded with a video tirade against Islam: “The Koran is hateful … Your religion is s—.” She hurled pornographic insults against the Prophet Muhammad. The video went viral and before long Mila was receiving rape and death threats. Her school was made public. She went into hiding. Abdallah Zekri, from the French Council of Muslims, said the girl must reap “what she sowed”. He later retracted the comments. So far, so depressingly predictable.

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The shocking part? The police opened two investigations into the affair, one into the rape and death threats against Mila, and the other against Mila herself for “inciting religious hatred”. The latter investigation was dropped. But as Fraser Myers noted in the journal Spiked, the fact police in the staunchly secular republic launched an investigation into blasphemy in the first place is “extraordinary.”

Also extraordinary is the initial response from France’s justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, who condemned the death threats but claimed Mila’s attack on religion was “an attack on freedom of conscience”. As if it’s Zekri, and not Mila, forced into hiding. Belloubet had everything upside down. So do we.

Under cloak of piety, the boy called Mila a dirty whore. He could have made his point more politely, something like: “I shall pray for your soul, fallen woman.” If the government’s bill becomes law such misogynistic comments will be explicitly encouraged in contexts where they can’t be said now. Such comments carry the force of ancient dogma and persistent institutional power and privilege. No wonder the bill outlaws only “serious” intimidation; even when dispensed gently, religious judgment is, by its nature, intimidating. The proposed laws are an attack on conscience and freedom.

Julie Szego is a regular columnist.

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