Religious institutions and free speech advocates have condemned a bid by the Northern Territory government to “modernise” anti-discrimination laws, describing proposed changes as a threat to religious freedom, The Australian reports.
Faith-based schools would be stripped of their ability to hire teachers who adhere to their beliefs and banned from excluding prospective students who are not of a particular religion, with existing religious exemptions to the NT Anti-Discrimination Act on the chopping block.
The proposed reforms also include scrapping traditional definitions of “man” and “woman” and replacing the term “parenthood” with “carer responsibilities” and “marital status” with “relationship status”.
While the aim of the overhaul, according to a document released last month, is to ensure religious bodies were “accountable…and more inclusive”, it has been seized upon by same-sex marriage opponents to dismiss suggestions that religious freedom would be protected in the event of marriage laws being changed.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan, coordinator for the Coalition’s No campaign in the same-sex postal survey, said the NT push showed why Australians should have serious concerns about future protections for religious freedom.
“It indicates that people can’t trust the parliament to get these protections right,” Mr Canavan said.
According to the Modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act discussion paper, released by the NT Department of the Attorney-General and Justice, religious bodies currently have exemptions under the act for certain attributes aligning with their religious doctrines to avoid offending the sensitivities of followers.
“To promote equality of opportunity for all Territorians, the removal of some of these exemptions is being considered,” it notes. “One...exemption that could be removed is section 37A that permits religious schools to discriminate against employees on the grounds of religious beliefs, activity or sexuality.”
The only area in which religious groups would be permitted to discriminate would be in relation to the training and ordination of clergy, the education of religious sisters and brothers and roles in liturgical settings.
Bishop of Darwin Eugene Hurley, said he was surprised by the push, given the lack of evidence pointing towards discrimination by schools or welfare agencies.
“If we remove these exemptions, which are few and paltry, we may end up with a situation where people may not be able to practise their faith or teach their religion, even in a religious school,” he said.
Churches, schools fear anti-discrimination changes (The Australian)
Attorney-General to target church rights (The Catholic Weekly)