LGBT Advocates Warn Australia's Religious Freedom Bill 'Hands a Sword to People of Faith'

The Australian government has proposed legislation that would protect religious freedom outside of the workplace.

Attorney-General Christian Porter introduced the measure on August 29, three months after rugby player Israel Folau was fired by Rugby Australia for an Instagram post claiming "hell awaits" homosexuals and other groups, considered a breach of the Professional Players' Code of Conduct.

The post, and Folau's subsequent termination, sparked a heated debate about freedom of speech and religion in Australia.

israel folau
Israel Folau of the Wallabies looks on during the Third International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and Ireland at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Australia, on June 23, 2018. Matt King/Getty

"Australia has a strong anti-discrimination framework with specific protections for people against discrimination on the basis of their age, sex, race and disability," Porter said in a speech in Sydney.

"This draft bill released today extends those protections to provide protection for people against discrimination on the basis of their religion or religious belief, or lack thereof." Porter said, claiming it would provide an "extra protection" for an employee faced with a situation similar to Folau's.

But critics argue that it's much broader than anti-discrimination laws protecting race, sex, disability and age. It would also supersede Tasmania's current anti-discrimination law, which prohibits conduct that "offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules" others.

LGBT advocates warn that the proposal would grant "religious exceptionalism."

"These new, radical provisions go too far and hand a sword to people of faith to use their religious beliefs to attack others in our community," Anna Brown, chief executive of Equality Australia, said in a statement to The Guardian. "We must not go backwards or remove any protections from harmful behavior which have already been achieved—at great cost."

There are some limitations: Businesses with a turnover of more than $34 million would be prohibited from enforcing limitations on a person's religious expression in their private lives unless the company can show it would cause "unjustifiable hardship to the business." On that ground, action taken against the employee would be nondiscriminatory.

And religious expressions that were malicious or incite hatred would not be protected.

In August, Folau, a Christian, began an unfair dismissal case against Rugby Australia and the New South Wales Waratahs club, which will head to trial in February 2020 if no settlement is reached.

The final version of a religious freedom bill is expected to be introduced into parliament in October after further discussion with a variety of groups.

LGBT Advocates Warn Australia's Religious Freedom Bill 'Hands a Sword to People of Faith' | World