“While the government’s first draft was seriously unbalanced with the capacity to sustain a toxic atmosphere of nastiness and hostility, the second draft has swung the pendulum even further to support those who use religious belief as a weapon against non-believers,” Mr Kirby said.
According to the Attorney-General’s Department, the religious discrimination bill would make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life, such as education, employment, sport and goods and services.
Mr Kirby expressed concern the bill would override existing anti-discrimination laws, adding doctors, nurses and pharmacists would be “empowered” to deny treatment to people who did not share their religious belief.
He also warned that a religious school could, for example, refuse to hire a gardener unless they produced a reference from a priest as evidence of their faith.
“I am not someone who has abandoned my religious beliefs. I remain an Anglican. But I am deeply concerned at the potential impact of these laws,” Mr Kirby said.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the bill “simply says ordinary Australians should not be discriminated against because of their religion – or lack thereof – as they go about their everyday lives”.
“Part of that is the idea that you don’t break the law by explaining what you believe, but only if you do it in an ordinary, decent way.”
Mr Porter said this is why there is “very tight ring-fencing around the protections for statements of belief”.
“They make clear there is no protection for words that are malicious or said in bad faith, or which are not anchored in religious doctrine. You are not protected for statements that harass, vilify, threaten, seriously intimidate, or urge the commission of serious offence.”
Sources close to the group say the letter suggests further refinements to the bill but does not contemplate abandoning the process.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House