In brief 2 min read
The Australian Government has introduced its package of legislation on religious discrimination. The controversial package includes the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religious) Bill 2021 (Bills). The package follows two public exposure draft processes and feedback received from approximately 13,000 written submissions. The Bills make discrimination on the ground of religious belief or activity unlawful in specified areas of public life including employment. The more controversial aspects of the previous exposure drafts have now been removed, but it's still far from clear if the Bills will become law.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee as part of its inquiry is currently accepting submissions and is set to report back on 4 February 2022.1
The Bills have faced intense scrutiny from parliamentary members and advocacy groups. As a result, we expect a number of interested parties to provide further submissions. For now, this means that employers should keep themselves updated on the Bills' developments.
If passed, employers will need to review their policies on discrimination and ensure they incorporate the new requirements on religious discrimination.
The Bills will make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in specified areas of public life, such as work, education, accommodation and goods, services and facilities. It will not create a positive right to freedom of religion. The provisions in the Bills largely reflect existing protections in federal anti-discrimination law such as the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth) and Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).
The term ‘religious belief or activity’ is defined broadly as holding or not holding a religious belief, or engaging, not engaging or refusing to engage in lawful religious activity. It covers spiritual beliefs and actions.
The Bills also provide that certain conduct is not discrimination. This includes certain good faith conduct by religious bodies, conduct to meet a need arising out of a person or group's religious beliefs (for example, that an individual hold a certain religious belief for a role) and more controversially, statements of belief.
The Bills also establish a Religious Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission that will be empowered to receive complaints and conduct conciliation.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is accepting substantive submissions until 5pm (AEDT) 21 December 2021. The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee is accepting submissions until 7 January 2022.