Anti-gay beliefs to be protected under new Australian law

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Australian PM Scorr Morrison is a Pentecostal Christian - AAPIMAGE
Australian PM Scorr Morrison is a Pentecostal Christian - AAPIMAGE

Religious believers in Australia will be protected from being sued if they make anti-gay comments, under a proposed law that Scott Morrison, the prime minister, said would guard against “cancel culture”.

Australia legalised same-sex marriage in 2017, prompting some churches and other groups to say they felt they were sidelined.

The Religious Discrimination Bill will go before parliament on Thursday. Critics say it will legalise discimination against other groups.

“People should not be cancelled or persecuted or vilified because their beliefs are different from someone else’s,” Mr Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian, said as he introduced the bill to the lower house.

“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,” he added.

If the law is approved, Australians would be able to make “statements of belief” without fear of being sued, as long as those comments do not “threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group”.

Equality Australia, an LGBT rights group, told ABC this week: "When… a nurse says to a patient with HIV that their HIV is a punishment by God, for example…[that] could constitute a statement of belief, would be protected under the law under this bill."

Cases such as the 2019 sacking of Wallabies rugby player Israel Folau, who had said on social media that “hell awaits”, sparked national debate over freedom of speech.

In 2019 Rugby Australia tribunal found Israel Folau guilty of a 'high-level' code of conduct breach for posting on social media that 'hell awaits' gay people - AFP
In 2019 Rugby Australia tribunal found Israel Folau guilty of a 'high-level' code of conduct breach for posting on social media that 'hell awaits' gay people - AFP

'Persecuted for being Christian?'

While some church groups have welcomed the bill, other believers have questioned the need for such a law.

Australian pastor Jarrod Saul McKenna told The Telegraph: “I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone in Australia who had been persecuted in Australia for being a Christian”.

“I have shared a roof with refugees for most of my adult life and I have heard story after story of people being tortured, family members going missing, loved one ending up in ditches – that is persecution,” he said.

The law would also allow religious schools to hire or fire teachers based on “ethos”, as long as that ethos is publicly explained.

Australia's existing Sex Discrimination Act allows schools to expel students or sack teachers for being gay. Morrison pledged in 2018 to reform the legislation.

LGBT groups support reforming the Act but have criticised the new bill saying it would enable discrimination against gay students and teachers as it permits prioritising the hiring and enrolment of people based on faith.

The bill has also divided parliament, with some conservatives government lawmakers threatening to vote against the legislation until Morrison moves to abolish state mandates requiring Covid-19 vaccines.

The legislation is expected to be put to a vote next week in the lower house, but it is far from guaranteed to pass into law. The bill is expected to be reviewed before being voted on in the upper house Senate sometime in 2022-23.

Australia's parliament is in its last sitting fortnight for the year and Morrison could call an election before it resumes in 2022. Morrison must return to the polls by May 2022.

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