In May this year, Philip Ruddock handed his report on religious freedom in Australia to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull’s office stated that the report would not be made public and that it would be withheld for “weeks” while the government considers its ramifications. There is little detail available, but the report is rumoured to include and expansion of anti-discrimination laws to cover religious beliefs. Currently, it is illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, age, disability or gender or sexual identity, mostly with regard to employment and education1. In the interim, everything went pear-shaped for Turnbull’s prime ministership, and the Ruddock report was lost in the melee.
Now it seems the Ruddock report has been exhumed from the debris by the current PM, Scott Morrison, who has vowed to change laws to protect religious freedom. However, he has assured voters that he will not be a “culture warrior” in divisive social issues. He then is quoted as saying something very telling: “Just because things haven’t been a problem in the past, doesn’t mean they won’t be a problem in the future … So, I’ll be taking a proactive approach when it comes to ensuring that people’s religious freedoms are protected”2. This is in response to church groups whining about protecting their ability to discriminate against gay people either in marriages, education or employment. After this, Morrison started (earlier than usual) the usual right-wing furphy of the war on Christmas3, by stating that children in public schools should not face curbs on Christian traditions. Morrison said “Like anyone else, they should be able to do Christmas plays, they should be able to talk about Easter. That’s our culture. There’s nothing wrong with that. … The narcs can leave those things alone”.
To my knowledge, religious groups or practitioners have not been discriminated against in Australia, yet the government apparently wants to include it in current anti-discrimination laws, or indeed to introduce a religious discrimination act. Many people consider that this will be simply an effort to reintroduce the ability to discriminate even more than they do now4.
What is this all about? It is because the religious can see their influence in society waning as the populace becomes less religious, and less willing to listen to the bigotry spouted by them. Even the Liberal Tim Wilson is wary of a religious discrimination act being used as a smokescreen for LGBTI discrimination. Last year, Liberal Senator James Paterson tried unsuccessfully to introduce a law that would wind back anti-discrimination protections for LGBTI people in the name of religious liberty4. His proposed law would have allowed businesses to discriminate against others if the business owner had religious objections to their prospective client’s activities.
Why would the religious be worried? Because they only need to look back at their own history to see what they did to minorities when their influence was greater. This is the last gasp of the religious attempting to entrench their privilege in a society which is rapidly becoming less religious, less bigoted, and less accepting of unwarranted privilege, and churches have had the latter in spades.