Would a Federal Religious Discrimination Bill (RDB) allow a nurse to say to a patient with HIV that AIDS is a punishment from God?

Would the RDB allow a disability worker to say to a disabled girl that her disability is caused by the devil?

Would it allow a doctor to refuse treatment to a gay patient just because he’s gay?

None of the above claims—and many like them—have any basis in reality.

These are some of the claims being made about the Religious Discrimination Bill that’s before Federal Parliament. At best, the RDB is disparaged by many secular commentators as unnecessary. Or at worst, it’s condemned as a sword to inflict hate and harm on vulnerable LGBTIQ+ people.

But are any of these claims true?

Or are they misunderstandings and misleading untruths that seek to weaken the legal ability of Australian faith communities (Christian and non-Christian) to teach and live out their respective faiths?

As we’ll see in a moment, none of the above claims—and many like them—have any basis in reality. They’re distortions of what the RDB says, what its purpose is, and what it would allow.

But before we explore these untruths, it’s worth asking a prior question: why care about religious discrimination in the first place?

Why Should Christians Care about Religious Discrimination? 

Many Christians may be thinking: why all this fuss about religious freedom and religious discrimination? After all, neither Jesus nor the early church had—nor expected to have—a life free from persecution (John 15:18, 2 Tim 3:12). Why, then, should we 21st century Australian Christians care about it?

There are a number of reasons why this should be of concern for Christians.

First, while Scripture doesn’t speak directly to specific legislation such as the RDB, it does state that being free from the threat of Government persecution (i.e. having freedom of religion) is a God-pleasing state of affairs: in fact, we’re to pray for it (1 Tim 2:1-4). In other words, there’s a direct line from Scripture to a government that doesn’t persecute Christians (or people of other faiths).

Second, when religious freedom is eroded, it’s not just Christians who suffer. People of minority faiths—many of whom are migrants, refugees, and people of NESB—are also at risk of over-reaching governments, activists, and human rights commissions. If we care about our neighbours, whatever their religion, we’ll care about their ability to live out their faith without undue government interference.

Third, as citizens, we have a (God-given) democratic responsibility. Being silent about religious freedom is a dereliction of our duty to our neighbours, for it allows the passage of unjust—and yes, ungodly—laws without opposition. 

Speaking of this responsibility, TGC-US Council member Russell Moore argues:

As citizens, we bear responsibility for electing officials, and for the laws that they make in our name. We set precedents by our actions or our silence. Shrugging this off is not the equivalent of Jesus standing silently before Pilate. It’s the equivalent of Pilate washing his hands so as not to bear accountability for our own decisions and precedents set.

With that said, what are the five misleading untruths about the RDB?

Five Misleading Untruths About the Religious Discrimination Bill

The Melbourne based Institute for Civil Society, headed by lawyer Mark Sneddon, has compiled a fact sheet summarising the five biggest objections to the Federal Religious Discrimination Bill. You can download and read the fact sheet here.

Here are the salient points:  

Objection 1: The Religious Discrimination Bill is Unnecessary

Secular commentator Peter Van Onselen made this point when he said recently:

… they got Philip Ruddock … a liberal cabinet minister at that time to do a review and that found essentially that this [Religious Discrimination] law… that they’re looking to bring in was unnecessary … they’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

Is this the case?

Not at all. Here’s why:

McCrindle Research shows that 29% of Australians report having experienced discrimination against them because of their ‘religion or religious views’

  • Discrimination against people of faith is legal in NSW and SA. A business can put up a sign saying, “No Christians /Hindus /Jews / Muslims allowed”, and that is not illegal discrimination in NSW or SA. We wouldn’t accept that for any other minority group.
  • The Ruddock Review recognised that religious discrimination does exist. It recommended an RDA to fill the gap in existing law:
    While the Panel did not accept the argument, put by some, that religious freedom is in imminent peril; it did accept that the protection of difference with respect to belief or faith in a democratic, pluralist country such as Australia requires constant vigilance.[1] 
  • Australiawatch.com.au documents 44 real-life cases of religious discrimination against Australians at work, in education, in businesses and in professions and trades that demonstrate the need for the RD Bill. 
  • 2021 polling from McCrindle Research shows that 29% of Australians report having experienced discrimination against them because of their “religion or religious views[2]

(To see the full fact sheet with more data, click here).

Objection 2: The Religious Discrimination Bill Allows Religious Schools to Fire Gay Teachers and Expel Gay Students

LGBTI activist Rodney made this claim when he spoke on radio:

… this Bill is definitely a sword when it comes to gay teachers or trans workers in a religious agency, to LGBTI kids in faith-based schools, to people who are using religious services, this Bill allows potentially wide-ranging discrimination …

Again, this statement is misleading, twisting the RDB beyond recognition:

  • The Religious Discrimination Bill is not a sword but a shield protecting people against discrimination only on the ground of religious belief or activity. The Bill does not affect any other law against discriminatory actions on the grounds of disability, gender, relationship status, sexual orientation, or any other attribute. 
  • The Bill does not affect the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 or any State or Territory law protecting teachers or students from discriminatory actions on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • The Bill lets religious schools preserve their religious character and ethos by ensuring they can prefer to hire and retain staff who support the beliefs of the religion. This is the same protection of freedom of association that lets political parties, MPs and Ministers to prefer to hire and retain staff who have the same political beliefs.
  • Some religious schools (and almost all religious bodies) will choose to create a community and a culture where all staff are expected to support and teach the way of life of the religion. As Professor Patrick Parkinson has stated:
     … modelling [a religion] within a faith community is as important as teaching [the religion] within a classroom or [a church]. Indeed it may well be more important and have more impact on people’s lives.
    A religious school that makes this choice (and publicly discloses that policy as this Bill will require) should not be forced by anti-discrimination law to hire and retain staff who will not support and teach the religious beliefs of the school—it is about whether a staff member shares the beliefs of the religion, not about their sexuality.

(To see the full fact sheet with more data, click here).

Objection 3: The Religious Discrimination Bill Will Legalise Hate Speech

The website ‘Junkee’ made this claim recently:

So a statement that is discrimination today could be lawful tomorrow. Say, things like a nurse saying to a patient with HIV that AIDS is a punishment from God, or a disability worker saying to a girl with a disability that her disability is caused by the devil.

Of course, this is not the case at all. Here’s why:

  • The quoted examples are fanciful, hateful hypotheticals. No nurse or disability worker believes these things or would say these things because they would be rightly subject to complaints and workplace discipline. The Religious Discrimination Bill will not change that.
  • The RDB will protect statements of belief (or unbelief) which are made in good faith, not malicious, not harassing, threatening, intimidating, or vilifying (referred to as ‘moderate statements’). The quoted hypotheticals would fail that test and would thus receive no protection under the Bill.
  • The RDB protects people who make moderate statements of belief or unbelief from being taken (often by activists) to an anti-discrimination tribunal. Catholic Archbishop Porteous in Tasmania gave parents of Catholic school students a document with moderate statements on standard Catholic doctrine on sexuality and man-woman marriage. An offended non-Catholic transgender person then took him to the Tasmanian anti-discrimination tribunal, where he was subjected to 9 months of compulsory conciliation before the person dropped the complaint. The RDB will prevent that misuse of anti-discrimination law to shut down moderate statements of belief and unbelief.

(To see the full fact sheet with more data, click here).

Objection 4: The Religious Discrimination Bill Will Threaten Healthcare for Minorities

The LGBTI advocacy group Equality Australia made this claim:

The Religious Discrimination Bill strengthens the ability for doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists to refuse treatment to patients on religious grounds, and protects certain religious statements made by health providers which are discriminatory.

This statement is incorrect:

  • The RDB protects people from religious discrimination. It does not provide any right or protection for a medical professional to discriminate against their patients in type or quality of medical care or to refuse to provide treatment on religious or conscience grounds.
  • The RDB does not amend healthcare laws or health practitioner regulations. Health professionals are bound by their own professional conduct laws. Breach of such laws can result in discipline by AHPRA and the Medical Board.
  • The Bill does not affect these rules and responsibilities except to protect health professionals who make moderate statements of belief or unbelief outside their work context from professional body sanctions, as explained above. The Bill does not protect statements of belief made by health workers to patients or colleagues in a work context from professional body sanction or from complaints to their employers.

Objection 5: The Religious Discrimination Bill will Wind-Back Protections for Women, Disabled, and LGBTIQ+

Anna Brown, the CEO of Equality Australia, made this claim:

[The RDB] will wind-back hard-fought protections for women, people with disability, LGBTIQ+ people, and even people of faith.

This is not the case:

  • The Bill only relates to discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity. It does not authorise discrimination on the grounds of any other protected attributes such as race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. And it does not change the protection against discriminatory acts based on those protected attributes under any other laws.

What Can Christians do In Response To The Federal RDB? 

While the opposition to the Religious Discrimination Bill is widespread and passionate, Christians can do a number of things in response:

1. Pray for our Federal Parliament

Whatever happens, we’re called to pray for our governments that we might live ‘a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Tim 2:2). Pray that our Federal Parliament might have wisdom as they deal with the issue of Religious Freedom, and the RDB.

2. Share reliable content online

There is a great deal of misinformation around the topic of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and religious freedom more broadly. Sharing articles like this one will help address some of the misinformation, which so many of our fellow citizens are succumbing to.

3. Make Your Voice Heard Via This Two Minute Parliamentary Survey

The Joint Human Rights Committee of the Federal Parliament has put out this survey for Australian citizens, to get an understanding of the community’s view around religious freedom and the RDB.

4. Ring Your Federal Parliamentarian 

Our Parliamentarians are here to represent us, and a phone call from a constituent is something they take seriously. Merely mentioning that Religious Freedom is something you value (and why) will have an impact.

Taking Responsibility No Matter What Happens

Despite what Christians and members of other faiths do, we may well be the last generation to have meaningful religious freedom here in Australia.

Yet we need not fear, for Jesus is still Lord.

But if religious freedom does go, may it not be because we were misinformed or uninterested. Instead, may we love our neighbour by using our God-given voice, ‘entrusting our souls to a faithful Creator while doing good’ (1 Peter 4:19).

[1] Paragraph 1.6. Religious Freedom Review, May 2018

[2] Australia’s-Changing-Spiritual-Landscape-Report-2021.pdf (mccrindle.com.au)