Australia’s Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill is a bigot’s charter

NEXT week a Senate committee in Australia is to examine the provisions of a draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill which, to the fury of many, would grant wide-ranging exemptions to religious bodies – including, would you believe? – a breakfast cereal company owned by Seventh Day Adventists.

The draft of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill consolidates five existing federal discrimination laws after a decades-long campaign by lawyers and human rights advocates. The draft bill makes clearer which groups and religious organisations can discriminate against lawfully.

Under the draft bill, faith-based groups, including schools and hospitals, can still refuse to hire people because of a wide range of attributes that would be unlawful for any other organisation, including women who are pregnant or potentially pregnant.

This report points out that among those that would be exempt is Weet-Bix manufacturer Sanitarium, a company that says:

If you share our passion for what we do, our products and you can align with our Christian-based principles this is a great opportunity for you.

Weet-Bix, tasty and full of Christian goodness

Weet-Bix, tasty and packed full of Christian goodness

Sanitarium spokeswoman Julie Praestiin said the company’s workplace culture was:

Grounded on Christian-based values of care, courage, humility, integrity and passion which are generally shared by the Australian community.

She added that Sanitarium complied with employment laws.

We are an equal opportunity employer and have a diverse workforce which encompasses a variety of cultures and worldviews. Religious belief is not a condition of employment.

But Hugh de Kretser, executive officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres, said that Sanitarium, which is understood to have a turnover of $300 million a year – although the church is not required to lodge Sanitarium’s financial reports – should not be allowed to discriminate.

That a large organisation with a turnover of $300 million a year is given a green light by the law to discriminate highlights the problems with these exemptions.

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens are insisting that any religious groups that get taxpayer funds should be barred from taking advantage of anti-discrimination loopholes – and immediately incurred the wrath of Australian Christian Lobby head Jim Wallace who described the gathering storm clouds over the draft legislation as a sign of rising “militant atheism”.

The Greens have accused the Australian Christian Lobby of trying to dictate Government policy and demanded Prime Minister Julia Gillard reveal what she might have promised religious leaders about a the draft bill.

Under current exemptions to legislation, religious groups can reject employees for being gay, single parents or living “in sin”.

Wallace’s comments came after a Fairfax news report said Gillard had assured religious groups they would have still have the freedom to discriminate against “sinners”.

Said Wallace:

What people are trying to create here is a new intolerance to faith. I’m not aware of any church or any organisation actually rejecting employment of anyone.

And Wallace compared the freedom to hire and fire based on Christian values to a political party’s right to refuse a job to a member of an opposing party.

The church wants to reflect through its staff the philosophy of Christ. All she (Gillard) said in her response to the concerns of Christian leaders is that she has no intention of limiting freedom of religion.

But the Atheist Foundation of Australia says the bill is, in part:

Legislative protection for outright bigotry. Any other description would be falsifying the language. It does not reflect the ideas of the vast majority of the electorate, whether they are believers or non-believers. That aside, it fails to pass the ethical standard expected of our leaders.

It points out that this law

Protects discrimination against single mothers, gays, lesbians, intersex, transsexuals, bisexuals, adulterers and de-facto couples and belongs to an era that no longer exists. And who knows who else is on the narrow-minded hit list. Such discrimination sends a strong message to the community that some people are – to paraphrase George Orwell – less equal than others in the eyes of the government of the day. The negative impact of this legislation may damage already vulnerable lives and in some cases be the straw that causes self-harm or even suicide.

David Nicholls, President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, said:

Repugnant religious bigotry will always be with us; the same cannot be said for governments that openly support it. The Prime Minister is backing a minority view of overly zealous religious leaders and followers and has been advised badly on this matter.

He added:

Australia’s ever-creeping soft theocracy, which includes the Howard debacle of chaplains in state schools and progressive legislation not enacted or stymied by faith initiatives, has become a matter only controllable by the voter.

And he pointed out:

Tasmania removed the ability of religions to discriminate on such grounds about ten years ago. As far as we know, it has not sunk beneath the waves or suffered any inconvenience because of it.

Hat tip: BarrieJohn