Religious discrimination laws introduced to Parliament by Scott Morrison

Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has introduced his government's contentious bill to shield people of faith from discrimination, declaring Australians should not be "cancelled, persecuted or vilified" for expressing their beliefs.

Mr Morrison said the new bill would fix a weakness in the nation's anti-discrimination laws, as he personally introduced it to the House of Representatives on Thursday morning.

The bill will now be referred to a Senate inquiry, with the government running out of time to pass the laws before next year's federal election.

Labor has backed the principle of federal religious anti-discrimination laws, but won't settle its position on the government's bill until it has considered it in detail and consulted widely.

The government has been framing the legislation as a shield to protect people of faith, but critics fear it could open the door to discrimination against groups, including gay and lesbian people.

The bill, promised ahead of the 2019 election, includes provisions that override state and territory laws to allow people of faith to make statements aligned with their beliefs.

It would also allow religious-based institutions, such as schools, to preference people of the same faith when hiring staff.

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Mr Morrison said in a free and tolerant society such as Australia, people should not be "canceled, persecuted, vilified, because their beliefs are different from someone else's".

He argued people across various faiths were concerned about a lack of religious protection against the "prevalence of cancel culture in Australia".

"The citizens of a liberal democracy should never be fearful about what they believe, the lives they lead, or the god they follow," he said.

"Australian shouldn't have to worry about looking over their shoulder, fearful of offending an anonymous person on Twitter, cowards sitting there, abusing and harassing them for their faith."

"We have to veer away from the artificial phony conflicts, boycotts, controversies, and canceling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies.

"In our secular society, every religion and belief should have the same rights and freedoms."

Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman. Picture: Keegan Carroll

The religious freedom debate has created further tensions within an already divided Coalition, with moderate Liberal MPs raising concerns about potential unintended consequences of the statement of belief protection and school hiring clause.

Liberal backbenchers including Trent Zimmerman, Bridget Archer and Dave Sharma are reportedly now pushing Mr Morrison to provide further protections for gay students and teachers through changes to a separate piece of legislation.

They want the urgent removal of an exemption in the nation's sex discrimination lawsmaking it possible for faith-based schools to sack teachers and expel students for being gay.

Mr Morrison had pledged to act on the exemption in 2018, but the step is subject to a review which isn't expected to be finished until 2023.

In his speech to parliament on Thursday, Mr Morrison emphasised that "nothing" in the new bill allowed for "discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity".

"You won't find it, anything of that nature in this bill. Such discrimination has no place in our education system," he said.

Earlier on Thursday, Assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker confirmed faith-based schools would be able to refuse employment to a gay teacher under the new bill.

She noted that schools would be required to make public their position on "religious beliefs or activities" and how they would be enforced, which meant the community and prospective staff would be clear about where it stood.

"Now for many people, they'll look at that [school's position] and go, 'Well, you know, that's pretty intense. That might not be somewhere I want to work'.

"Other people will say, that's the way I believe and that's the way I want to believe."

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said Labor would review the bill and consult with the community before deciding its final position.

Labor supports the principle of adding religious protections to the nation's suite of anti-discrimination laws, which cover sex, age, gender and disability.

But Mr Dreyfus said they should not remove existing protections against other forms of discrimination.

Mr Dreyfus said Labor wanted the bill to be scrutinised by a joint select committee, so all members of parliament could participate.

This story People of faith shouldn't be 'cancelled', Morrison says of contentious bill first appeared on The Canberra Times.