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Federal election 2016: Greens under pressure on religion reforms
by David Crowe
Australian Federation of Islamic Councils treasurer Keysar Trad says ‘the Greens are pandering to niche politics’.
Church leaders have put religious freedom on the agenda, speaking out against a Greens plan to scrap longstanding safeguards in the nation’s anti-discrimination laws, while Labor hedges on the issue.
Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders are objecting to the Greens plan to remove the religious exemptions, saying it could force people to act against their faith.
The dispute is being shaped by debate over same-sex marriage as church groups seek assurances they will not be forced to conduct ceremonies that conflict with their beliefs. The government has promised a plebiscite and Labor has promised a conscience vote on marriage equality.
The Greens risk losing support among religious and community groups worried the legislation will erode their religious rights, amid mixed signals from Labor as to whether it might back the changes.
“The Greens are pandering to niche politics,’’ said Keysar Trad, the treasurer of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.
“This is no different to the submission to powerful lobbies that they criticise other parties of doing. In the interest of basic human rights, the Greens need to respect the majority as well as the minorities.”
Greens senator Nick McKim stepped up the case to overhaul the Anti-Discrimination Act yesterday, saying churches should lose their exemption from key parts of the law. “The fundamental principle here is that Australians should be treated the same, whether or not they’re of one particular religion or another or whether in fact they’re not religious at all,” he told Sky News.
“And if the rest of the country is going to be required by legislation to behave in a particular way and not behave in other particular ways, we think that’s reasonable for the churches as well.”
Labor’s policy calls for a review of the exemption. Asked where he stands on the issue, Bill Shorten has left his options open.
Sydney Anglican bishop Michael Stead said Australia’s commitment to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights included the provision that everyone had the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
“This proposal from the Greens would renege on that commitment and undercut the sensible provisions of existing legislation by taking away the freedom of Australians to live according to their beliefs and to practise their faith in public,” Bishop Stead said.
“This would become increasingly fraught with difficulties if Australia were to legislate for same-sex marriage in the future. The removal of so-called religious exemptions could lead to ministers being forced to conduct such ceremonies or face prosecution.”
Church leaders said a belief in religious freedom did not mean support for discrimination, and rejected suggestions people in need would be turned away from services on the basis of their race or sexual orientation.
“Catholic agencies would never refuse to employ someone on the basis of their sexuality,” said Aoife Connors, from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
The Uniting Church opposed all discrimination beyond that necessary to practise religious faith. “There are no defensible grounds” for discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer people in services such as aged care, according to Uniting Justice Australia director Elenie Poulos.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry director Peter Wertheim said: “It would be wrong and unworkable for the law to compel people to do things that are contrary to their religious beliefs or conscience.’’
Presbyterian Church spokesman John McClean said the Anti-Discrimination Act should not be used to silence legitimate debate or to stop organisations following their moral convictions.
“Do we want a society of bland uniformity? Or do we want people to be able to express their views and live according to their convictions?” Dr McClean asked.
“I’m sure Senator McKim would not expect an environmental organisation to be forced to employ someone who promoted coal mining and whale hunting! That would compromise the purpose of the organisation.
“Churches and Christian organisations should be able to employ people with Christian convictions. It should be possible for parents to enrol their children in a school where teachers share their religious views, if that is what they want. And that means those schools have to be able to employ those teachers.”
Dr McClean, who is vice principal of Christ College in Sydney, said concerns about limits on religious groups were fuelled last year by the attempt to take the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, to court for his role in promoting traditional marriage.
“The incident naturally made people wonder how similar legislation might be used in the future to silence debate or force churches to comply with a social agenda,” Dr McClean said.
The Islamic community said the Greens should not be “selective” about the freedoms the party would fight for.
“Marriage is a religious institution and must be allowed to continue to be conducted in accordance with the preset teachings of the religion in question,” Mr Trad said.
“The Greens have always maintained that they are pro-choice in a variety of matters including marriage, abortion, etc. It would seem that they have become very selective about this choice
“Why is the choice of some more important than the choice of others that the Greens would seek to penalize by law someone who does not wish to directly contribute, for reasons of personal or religious conviction, to a same gender union?
“Refusing to conduct a particular marriage ceremony because of a set of convictions should be a right that is respected just as much as they respect the right of some to want to enter into a union with the same gender.”
Labor has kept its options open on the religious exemption in the Anti-Discrimination Act, in a stance that could leave Mr Shorten subject to criticism from church and community leaders ahead of the election.
The Labor policy platform calls for a review of the religious exemption and generally argues against the need for special rules for any groups such as churches, making it difficult for Mr Shorten to back the existing safeguards.
When asked about the issue by The Australian last week, Mr Shorten avoided any commitment for or against the religious exemption.
“We do believe that people shouldn’t be discriminated against in their employment on the basis of the criteria which currently exist so we are not as keen to simply start changing everything and denying people their employment rights,” Mr Shorten said.