New South Wales Parliament Seeks Community Input on Religious Freedom Bill

By Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark is an Australian based reporter who focuses on national politics and the geopolitical environment in the Asia-pacific region, the Middle East and Central Asia.
August 20, 2020Updated: August 20, 2020

The New South Wales government is seeking community input for their inquiry into One Nation MP Mark Latham’s religious freedom and equality amendment to the anti-discrimination act.

The amendment (pdf), which was introduced into the NSW state parliament on May 13 by Latham, seeks to equalise the rights of those with religious beliefs—a need Latham argued in his introduction of the bill is vital because “the fastest growing form of discrimination in our society is against people of religious faith.”

“Religious discrimination is an issue no government can ignore,” Latham explained.

“All religious faith that respects the sanctity of life and the goodness of the human soul and reaches out to others with the hope of salvation and compassion should be honoured in our society,” Latham said, referring not just to people who practise Christianity but also those who practice Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and those who are atheists and agnostic.

“The origins of the Australian welfare state lie in the mutual help and care by religious associations. Religious rights are not a fringe issue. They are at the heart of our society’s origins and values. They are a basic matter of human rights,” Latham declared.

At present, it is illegal to discriminate against a person in NSW based on age, gender, sexuality, race or disability, but not religious belief.

In 2018, the Turnbull government’s Ruddock Religious Freedom Review (pdf) recommended that the government develop a “Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Act” to protect from discrimination based on religious belief or activity or the absence of religious belief.

Chair of the Inquiry into the Religious Freedom and Equality Bill, Liberal MP Gabriel Upton, told The Epoch Times on Aug. 19 that the Joint Select Committee on the Anti-discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedom and Equality) Bill 2020 will be checking that the “objectives of the bill are valid and whether the terms of the bill are appropriate for securing its objectives.”

According to Upton, the committee will consider recommendations relevant to NSW from the Religious Freedom Review, the Commonwealth’s 2019 Religious Discrimination Bill, and the Australian Law Reform Commission.

But she noted that “as the Committee Chair, I want all views to be heard and I encourage the community to make submissions through the Committee webpage on the NSW Parliament website,” Upton said.

The NSW government has also created an online questionnaire that closes on Aug. 21.

Opposition to the Bill

Equality Australia has voiced opposition to the bill, arguing that the legislation proposes protections for behaviours that breach civil obligations and laws causing potential harms to even those who hold religious beliefs.

Identifying five fundamental issues, they argue that the proposed amendment would raise religious organisations above the law, creating a double standard in area’s like employment and education, and undermining inclusiveness in the areas like the workplace.

Equality Australia also believes that the Latham amendment will elevate religious beliefs above other human rights.

Australia was one of eight nations who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, as a country, ratified most of the declaration (pdf) in 1980.

Currently, Article 18 of the international covenant for civil and political rights covers the right to freedom of religion.

Support From Religious Groups

The amendment has received supported by religious groups throughout NSW.

Catholic leaders said that they saw the bill as “critical” in an article published in the Catholic weekly in May.

Professor Michael Quinlan, dean of the University of Notre Dame Australia’s School of Law in Sydney, said he believed the bill was not controversial and should attract bipartisan support.

Dr. Kevin Donnelly, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, said that it is “critical that the NSW Government legislates as quickly as possible to protect the rights of people of faith and no faith.”

Donnelly noted that there is now a need to protect religious freedom because secular critics seek now to marginalise religious people and remove them from the public space.