Israel Folau Attends Fair Work Commission Hearing
Israel Folau Attends Fair Work Commission Hearing

Why new religion laws might not have saved Folau

Israel Folau may not have been protected from being sacked by Rugby Australia under proposed new religious discrimination laws.

Under a first draft of the laws, released for consultation today, Australians could face six months jail or fines of up to $6300 if they are found guilty of religious discrimination under the act.

It would also ban employers from using an employee conduct rule that would stop staff from making statements of religious belief outside of work.

But the protection doesn't apply if the statement is deemed "malicious" or would be likely to "harass, vilify or incite hatred or violence against another person or group of persons".

Israel Folau may not have been protected from being sacked by Rugby Australia under proposed new religious discrimination laws.. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Israel Folau may not have been protected from being sacked by Rugby Australia under proposed new religious discrimination laws.. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia in May after sharing a post on Instagram in April declaring that hell awaits "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters".

The rugby star, a "born again" Christian, is now suing Rugby Australia over the termination of his playing contract, arguing he was unlawfully dismissed for posting "biblical teachings" that are part of his religion.

If a similar case occurred with the new discrimination laws in place, it would up to a court to decide if the employee's statement was covered by the protection.

Attorney-General Christian Porter released a draft of the proposed religious discrimination laws today for a consultation period before they are introduced to Parliament in October.

The bill would establish a new Freedom of Religion Commissioner for Australia.

It would also prevent people being discriminated against for their religious beliefs, in the same way race, age, disability, sex and sexual orientation are currently covered.

The bill will also cover atheists and agnostics.

Attorney-General Christian Porter released a draft of the proposed religious discrimination laws today for a consultation period before they are introduced to Parliament in October. Picture: AAP
Attorney-General Christian Porter released a draft of the proposed religious discrimination laws today for a consultation period before they are introduced to Parliament in October. Picture: AAP

But Mr Porter declared the new laws would not prioritise freedom of religion over other rights or "enable hate speech, harassment or vilification".

"It is best described as a 'shield' approach rather than a positive rights or 'sword' approach," Mr Porter said in a speech to religious leaders in Sydney.

"Rights positively expressed are powerful swords, but they are always dual-edged swords."

Equality Australia has slammed the draft bill, saying the "radical" new provisions to prevent religious discrimination "hand a sword to people of faith to use their religious beliefs to attack others in our community".

"Laws must apply equally to everyone - this Act enshrines religious exceptionalism by giving new privileges to people of faith, while overriding existing protections from discrimination for others," Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said.

"There appears to be a specific override of Tasmanian prohibitions on conduct which 'offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules' other members of our community, including LGBTIQ+ people.

"We must not go backwards or remove any protections from harmful behaviour which have already been achieved - at great cost."

She added it was "disappointing" the government had not consulted groups that "could be targeted" if the measures are passed.

A separate review is still ongoing into the question of whether religious schools should have the power to sack teachers or expel students based on their sex or sexual orientation.

That review, by the Australian Law Reform Commission into exemptions for religious institutions in current discrimination laws, is due to report next year.

"The ALRC inquiry is designed to ensure that existing legislative exemptions to discrimination based on a person's identity are redrafted or removed, while also protecting the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos," Mr Porter said.

He added the new laws would "protect people from being discriminated against, but will not give them a licence to discriminate against other people".

Some religious groups boycotted the Attorney-General's speech today, claiming they were not informed about the release of the draft bill.

The draft legislation is available online for public consultation, with submissions due to close on October 2.

Labor will support modest changes to anti-discrimination laws to protect people of faith, but not broad-ranging reforms.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus slammed the government over its minimal consultation on the bill, saying Labor had not been consulted and "almost no religious organisations" or LGBTI groups had had a say.

"It is vital that the government allow a proper time for the whole of the Australian community to consider this religious discrimination bill," he said.

The Morrison Government expects the laws can pass parliament this year.

- with AAP