The Consequences of Justifying Bigotry
By Sei Ahnne and Heart Yakira
The LNP government is due to submit its third draft of the religious discrimination bill later this year. This bill, an election promise from Morrison, would be a gift to the religious right wing who have spent some time licking their wounds over the passing of marriage equality and are now seeking to claw back political ground. It is an attempt to whittle away many long fought for gains for women and LGBTQ+ people.
The religious right wing knows it cannot launch a campaign to recriminalise abortion in QLD or revert the definition of marriage to hetero-exclusivity. Instead, they’re using the strategy known as white-anting; trying for smaller wins that empower its side.
Reading the Australian Christian Lobby’s submission, it’s obvious winning this bill would just be the beginning. They want to remove the section that “statements of belief” cannot threaten or seriously intimidate – with the argument that any expression of religious statement could then be construed as threatening or intimidation in bad faith. Removing this would permit expressions of ‘belief’ that are in reality expressions of bigotry under the guise of religion.
Religious statements themselves are not threatening or intimidating, it’s obvious that the ACL wants the freedom to intimidate people with impunity. The second draft already states seriously intimidate, implying the acceptance of a subjective level of intimidation. If this bill passes the ACL will not leave it at that – they will continue to sneak in amendments like this.
This bill is so controversial that even MPs within the Liberal party consider it a “Christian bill of rights,” going so far as to say they would “cross the floor” and vote against the bill if it threatens to affect the rights of women and LGBTQ+ community. Why is this bill so awful that even LNP members are threatening to break rank over it? The consequences are too extensive to list in full, but here are a few examples categorised by the people that would be harmed:
For LGBTQ+ people:
LGBTQ+ rights are the main targets of this bill. It’s important to note that unjust legal provisions that allow institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people already exist. These provisions need to be abolished, not strengthened further by the religious discrimination bill.
Workers in religious institutions, including many schools and hospitals, who already face significant lawful discrimination will be forced into the closet or risk being fired. LGBTQ+ children may be expelled from religious schools.
Doctors will have the right to refuse treatment if they believe it goes against their religious beliefs. This is a real threat to people’s physical health, for example if they are refused access to PreP or HIV treatment. Trans people can be denied hormones. People will be forced to live their lives in the closet, while bigots are given more room to spread their hateful nonsense.
It’s clear how the threat to mental health is perhaps even greater, which is alarming when one considers the already disproportionately high rates of mental health struggles within Australian youth and within the LGBTQ+ community due to discrimination and isolation. Accessing adequate mental health care is hard enough without offering legal protection to those within the medical field to refuse care to LGBTQ+ people.
For women and reproductive rights:
There are rules in place from medical professional bodies to attempt to ensure the equal treatment of all patients. These rules are already in tension with conscientious objector laws. Though abortion is decriminalised in QLD, for example, some doctors may refuse to perform them as conscientious objectors. In the case of abortion, this has made decriminalisation mean little for some women in regional and rural areas – it may be legal but no doctors will perform it. This shows a precedent of individuals misusing/abusing the law to support their own prejudice. “Conscientious objection is unethical when healthcare practitioners treat patients only as means to their own spiritual ends.” (B. M. Dickens, 2009)
The religious discrimination bill will further undermine codes of conduct set by professional bodies by making the codes themselves unlawful. Many of these rules dictate that doctors must treat their patients with respect and dignity – a doctor is already disrespecting pregnant patients by using them as a pawn in the expression of their political beliefs and refusing the decision to have an abortion by claiming conscientious objection. How can someone be treated with “respect and dignity” if individuals have even more right to ignore or disrespect them based on their gender or sexuality?
For religious minorities:
Among those advocating for this bill are those who willingly use religious minorities as rhetoric to further their agenda. They claim that those who are against the bill are fighting against these minorities when in reality it is the very groups using religious minorities as argument fodder that will use this bill as a legal safety net for their prejudice. We’ve seen how the right wing treats Islamic and Jewish people – are we now to believe they suddenly care about protecting the rights of these communities?
This bill will further codify discrimination against religious minorities by specifically allowing this discrimination against them as long as it can be successfully cloaked as religious expression.
According to 2016 census data 52.2% of the population are a denomination of Christianity, subsequently religious institutions in this country are overwhelmingly Christian. The people within these institutions already use their beliefs as justification for discrimination – this bill would create legal justification for this oppression.
For people with disabilities:
Most large disability service providers have religious foundations, and in some regional areas these providers are the only option. Access to support and treatment is already difficult and often unaffordable.
Many religious service providers themselves are against the bill as it would majorly disrupt their workplaces and ability to attract and retain staff. They have stated they do not want or need to discriminate against people in order to act in line with their religious beliefs. “Access to healthcare will be put at risk, and people with disabilities, and those with lived experience of mental illness, will lose discrimination protections to accommodate the religious beliefs of people who discriminate against them” (EqualityAustralia, 2021).
This bill would allow providers to:
- refuse access to birth control even when it is being used to treat issues like PCOS,
- refuse entry to people with guide dogs if they believe dogs are unclean,
- tell people their disability is God’s punishment or can be treated with prayer,
- spread beliefs such as mental illness, eating disorders, and addiction being the work of the devil or a punishment for sin.
None of the above actions or statements belong within fields of care. No one receiving support or treatment deserves to be subjected to these beliefs, especially by professionals being paid to facilitate this support. This bill places religious rights above all other rights, seriously undermining the safety and wellbeing of the downtrodden. By giving religion the freedom to discriminate, you are taking away the freedom from being discriminated against. This bill hurts those marginalised in our society and gives power to those who already hold too much.
There is a stark difference between a bill that prevents people from being discriminated against due to their religious beliefs compared to one that allows discrimination and prejudice to occur under the guise of the oppressor’s spirituality. This isn’t a question of religion or freedom of speech. The presentation of this bill as being a free-speech issue is totally false and hypocritical from a government that has introduced harsh whistleblowers laws, raided media offices, and expanded their ability to spy on us.
The majority of Australians oppose furthering the religious right wing’s ability to discriminate. The religious rightwing can only be fought back against from below, through mobilisation and organisation. Even if this bill is beaten back, the only way we can securely maintain the rights of the LGTBQ community, and all workers is through the expansion of our strength, so that the state is incapable of stripping us of our gains. Join us on the 4th of September as we rally against this bill, but we can’t stop there. Even if this bill is defeated, we have to continue fighting, and continue organising, until all the structures of capitalism and the state that create these oppressions are swept away.
More rally details can be found here: Brisbane: Stop the “religious freedom” bills: No right to discriminate!