Scott Morrison wants to prevent Australians being “cancelled” for their religious views under discrimination laws introduced to federal parliament.
The prime minister has declared faith and freedom inseparable as the coalition seeks to shield people who express their religious views even if they are considered socially disagreeable.
“People should not be cancelled or persecuted or vilified because their beliefs are different from someone else’s in a free liberal democratic society such as Australia,” Mr Morrison told parliament on Thursday.
“Australians shouldn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder fearful of offending an anonymous person on Twitter … or transgressing against political or social zeitgeists.
“We have to veer away from the artificial phoney conflicts boycotts, controversies and cancelling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies.”
The bill has divided moderates and conservatives in the coalition party room and caused disquiet across the political spectrum.
It would mean people who express their religious beliefs do not fall foul of existing anti-discrimination legislation.
But these expressions cannot be malicious or considered by a reasonable person to threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify.
“This bill ensures people can’t be persecuted for moderately expressing a reasonable belief,” Mr Morrison said.
“Nothing in this bill allows for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.”
Religious schools would be able to preference hiring people of a particular faith as long as this is a publicly available policy.
“A Sikh should not be discriminated against because of the turban they wear … nor a Jewish school seeking to employ someone of their faith,” Mr Morrison said.
Also under the changes, a religious discrimination commissioner would be appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
It could look into complaints from people claiming they had been unlawfully discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activity.
Human rights groups remained concerned about what the changes meant for LGBTIQ+ people.
“What constitutes discrimination today, will be lawful tomorrow, allowing people to say harmful, insulting and demeaning things,” Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said.
The coalition is under pressure including from some in its own ranks to amend the Sex Discrimination Act so teachers can’t be sacked and students expelled because of their sexual orientation.
Amanda Stoker, assistant minister to the attorney-general, told ABC radio these changes remained on the table but were separate to the religious discrimination bill.
Labor indicated it was willing to work with the government on the bill and would consult with groups including LGBTIQA+ organisations and religious bodies.
“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said.
The government’s bid to send the religious discrimination bill to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee was voted down shortly after the bill’s introduction.
Labor wants it to be examined in a select committee inquiry involving both houses of parliament.
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