Australia to keep anti-gay discrimination to protect ‘freedom’ of religious groups

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Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has reportedly given her word to religious groups that they will have the “freedom” under a new rights bill, to discriminate against gay people, and other people deemed sinners.

Under current laws, faith-based organisations, which includes schools and hospitals, can refuse to employ those they view as sinners, if they see that it “is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion”.

Australian Christian Lobby managing director, Jim Wallace, who has met with Julia Gillard several times, said that she assured him that “she has no intention of restricting freedom of religion”, in terms of religious groups’ legal right to discriminate in employing or dismissing staff.

The Prime Minster said through a spokesperson: “We don’t comment on discussions with stakeholders,” reports the Age. 

Ms Gillard pulled out from attending a Christian lobby conference last year, after Mr Wallace suggested smoking was healthier than an LGBT lifestyle.

Australian religious organisations are large employers, with the Catholic Church being one of Australia’s largest private employers.

They receive goernment funding, but because they have religious status, they are allowed to vet the sexual orientation of potential employees, in ways which would be illegal for non-religious groups.

The Labour government, which stands for representing progressive values, has been criticized for protecting religious freedom in such a way. 

Finance Minister, Penny Wong, who is a Christian and a lesbian, will be steering the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill through the Senate.

She said the party was “seeking to balance the existing law and the practice of religious exemptions with the principle of non-discrimination”.

It has been speculated that Labour minister had made similar promises to the Christian lobby since before Julia Gillard took office.

Before she was elected, Ms Gillard had promised Mr Wallace during a filmed interview that she would protect the school chaplains program, and that under her government “marriage will be defined as it is in our current Marriage Act as between a man and a woman”.

She also said that “we do not want to see the development of ceremonies that mimic marriage ceremonies”.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference made it clear that it thought the church should retain its right to vet candidates, but Anglicans were divided on the issue.  

Labour’s Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill was an attempt to consolidate the law, “not completely re-invent the anti-discrimination system”, a spokesperson for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said.

“We are proud to be introducing important new protections from sexual orientation discrimination. While there are some exemptions, this doesn’t detract from these important changes”.

In November, marriage equality advocates in Australia welcomed a new draft of the law, which aimed to protect gay Australians from unfair treatment in employment and services.

Last summer, the Prime Minister, who is personally opposed to marriage rights for gay couples, told the father of a gay man that not all loving relationships need to be recognised as marriages.