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Disability advocates worried religious discrimination bill will lead to more discrimination in Australia, not less

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Fiona Strahan remembers the first time she was told she was special.

"As a child I can remember when someone came up and said to me, 'God has made you special.' Much later, it came up again and I thought if God made me so special why do some people respond so meanly with stares, horrible words, pointing and laughing," the spokeswoman for Disability Voices said.

"Around the same time, someone uninvitedly told me my short stature was punishment from God … it was then I decided God can't have it both ways."

People with disability often experience ridicule, offensive assumptions, bias and intimidation. It does not matter whether this arises from hate, prejudice, misguided assumptions and attitudes towards disability  — or one person's interpretation of religious belief.

Now disability advocates — along with those for the LGBTQI advocates — are warning the federal government's religious discrimination bill does not go far enough to protect the existing rights of vulnerable communities.

The bill, which was tabled in Parliament last Thursday by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is the third version of a law promised by the Coalition government during the same-sex marriage debate.

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Scott Morrison introduces the religious discrimination bill to parliament.

"This bill brings clarity and it provides confidence that Australians of faith can have confidence they will be protected from discrimination," Mr Morrison said.

But Alastair Lawrie from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre believes the religious discrimination bill will result in more discrimination in Australia, not less.

Women, LGBTIQ people, people with disability and people of minority faiths all stand to lose, according to Mr Lawrie and the PIAC, which also long supported prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

"What the government appears set to introduce is a law that divides us," Mr Lawrie said.

"It privileges the expression of religious views and encourages derogatory and harmful comments against others as long as they are motivated by religious belief.

"It puts freedom of religion ahead of freedom from discrimination on other grounds. It supports the exclusion of people from employment and services on the basis of their religious belief, too."

Giancarlo de Vera, senior manager of policy from advocacy group People with Disability, agreed.  

"[The bill] has the potential for subjective statements of religious beliefs to override protections that are in place to ensure people with disability are not discriminated against," he said. 

'I will pray for you'

Ms Strahan said there were many ways other people's beliefs could affect the lives of people with a disability. 

"The imposition of these views upon people with disability fly in the face of the intent of the disability discrimination act and all other anti-discrimination legislation," Ms Strahan said.

For example, she said, a short-statured woman could be on a tram reading a book when she felt someone staring at her. She looks up and smiles, goes on reading. Someone taps her one the shoulder, it's the woman from the tram. She proceeds to say: "Jesus loves you, Jesus can heal you."

Another example: If a person who uses a wheelchair enters a shop and a member of staff addresses the person as being brave and an inspiration to others and loved by God. They stand in front of the person and say: "I will pray for you."

"I don't want any person with a disability to be on the receiving end of religious beliefs that cause them offence, humiliation, shame or fear. I don't want another person to take their life because of the relentless abuse and cruelty that is too often perpetrated in the name of God's love," Ms Strahan said.

Protecting religious beliefs

Supporters of the bill believe it will not increase the likelihood of discrimination, but will protect a neglected right.

Lawyer and legal academic Mark Fowler said protection of religious belief was the missing piece in Australia's equality legislation.

"Of the five main equality rights recognised in the international law to which Australia is a signatory … only religion fails to receive dedicated protection in Commonwealth law."

Mr Fowler said he believed the protections for statements of belief proposed in the bill were neutral, providing identical protections for non-religious views, including atheistic or agnostic beliefs.

"The most recent publicly released version of the bill does not permit discriminatory acts. It would not permit, for example, a taxi driver who refuses to provide a ride to a disabled person based on their religious belief," he said.

Mr Fowler said those who took part in drafting the bill anticipated the concerns of minority groups, and included a series of strict tests that any statement must satisfy to gain protection.

"To pass muster any religious statement must be made in good faith; not be malicious or likely to harass, threaten, intimidate or vilify; or amount to the urging of a serious criminal offence," Mr Fowler said.

However Ms Strahan said whether or not prejudice donned a cruel face or a well-meaning one was irrelevant.

"The intent is always the same and the results are always exhausting and destructive," she said.

Whether a statement has breached the standards in the bill would be assessed by a judge after the fact, which may lead to large legal bills for both parties.

"Overriding important existing legal protections that ensure people with disability are not discriminated against may mean people with disability will have to seek recourse at the Federal Court of Australia to challenge subjective statements of religious beliefs, which is costly, time consuming and adversarial," Mr de Vera said.

"Forcing people with disability to seek recourse this way may mean people with disability will lose out on supports they need to live an ordinary life on an equal basis as everyone else."

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Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said thousands of submissions were received in the consultation phase. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

A spokesperson from Attorney-General Michaela Cash's office said the bill was consistent with other anti-discrimination laws.

"Critically the bill will not allow discrimination on the basis of any other protected attribute (age, disability, race or sex)," Senator Cash said.

"The purpose of this legislation is to ensure discrimination on the ground of ground of religious belief or activity unlawful in specified areas of public life (e.g. employment, education, and the provision of goods and services). This is consistent with other anti-discrimination laws, such as the Disability Discrimination Act."

When the bill was first proposed, the Attorney-General's office received close to 6,000 written submissions.

This included a large number of campaign-style submissions.

The Attorney-General also met with 90  stakeholders, including representatives from religious, legal, LGBTIQ and community groups. A second public consultation process received close to 7,000 written submissions.

The ABC asked the Minister for the NDIS Linda Reynolds how the scheme would handle potential discrimination but her office declined to comment.

Interests of the public

Mr Lawrie said the religious discrimination bill undermined the integrity of our broader framework of discrimination laws, which at their core were about protecting people against mistreatment because of who they were.

"In practice, the statement of belief provision undermines one of the key advantages of state and territory anti-discrimination frameworks — that they are low cost to access — and instead makes it almost impossible for vulnerable people to bring complaints where this issue arises."

One of the ways the bill could impact minority groups is the way it potentially overrides state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

"As state tribunals are constitutionally prohibited from hearing Commonwealth legal defences, they would not be able to determine any complaint where the statement of belief provision is raised. That issue would instead have to be considered by a federal court," Mr Lawrie said.

For example, it would override a Tasmanian law that provides protection against offensive conduct on the basis of protected attributes like sex, race, disability or sexuality. 

"The biggest proportion of complaints under the section of the Tasmanian anti-discrimination act being targeted by the federal bill is from people with disability," Ms Strahan said.

"I feel very frustrated that the federal government's religious discrimination bill excuses behaviour from one part of the community at the expense of people with disability."

Where do we go from here?

Last week, Mr Morrison and Senator Cash referred the bill to the joint human rights committee. It is expected the report will be handed back by early February.

As the lower house commences its final sitting week for the year, the bill's immediate future is unclear. Labor's position on the matter remains undecided, while Liberal MP Warren Entsch has said he will vote against the bill until an inquiry has reported.

"The faith of any religion, as well as no religion, shouldn't override the rights of others in a free society. That means we rightly have a secular democracy and government, but that does not afford secular humanism the status of a state religion," Mr Morrison said of the bill.

But for Liam Yorke, a gender diverse queer man from Newcastle, the thought of the bill passing was frightening.

"I think it's a rollback of the communities that we've worked so hard for," he said.

"I've done a lot of work myself being involved in increasing rights for vulnerable people. And I think those freedoms that are proposed in this bill, they already exist.

"People are allowed to have these views and talk about them… they don't need to be on a public platform where it's going to make people feel very unsafe to just be themselves and to come out into the community."

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