Here’s why women should be worried about religious discrimination laws

Here’s why women should be worried about new religious discrimination laws

Diana Sayed
The Attorney-General announced new “religious freedom” laws on Thursday morning, and we should all be sitting up and taking notice, because they could have major consequences for women around the country.

As a woman of faith who has experienced the impacts of Islamaphobia, I know the importance of protecting people from discrimination on the basis of their religion.

But that’s not the extent of this proposed legislation. This legislation goes much further.

After weeks of closed door meetings with faith leaders, the Morrison Government has released draft legislation that would provide new privileges to people of faith, and override existing protections from discrimination for others.

While the detailed analysis that will be needed to understand the full implications of this legislation is still being undertaken, it’s already pretty clear that in its current form this bill could allow a person to use their religious beliefs as a cover for sexism and prejudice.

And complicated clauses look like they could provide new avenues for religious anti-choice conservatives to attack access to abortion care, with likely impacts on some state based laws that provide a woman with a right to referral for unbiased advice if her doctor’s personal religious views interfere with her access to reproductive healthcare.

For example, experts from the Human Rights Law Centre have indicated that in jurisdictions like South Australia and Western Australia, the proposed provisions could allow doctors to abandon their patients. And in New South Wales this bill would likely override a current policy directive issued by NSW Health requiring doctors with a conscientious objection to take every reasonable step to help a woman access the healthcare she needs. Yet another reason why it’s so important that NSW parliament passes abortion reform next month.

The Morrison Government’s proposed “religious discrimination” bill would also override existing state-based protections from intimidation, humiliation and ridicule on the basis of sex, marital status, breastfeeding, parenting or family responsibilites that currently operate in Tasmania.

If it’s approved by parliament in its current form, this legislation could put women, members of the LGBTIQ+ community, and people from minority faith communities in the firing line.

But this isn’t a debate about people of faith versus women or the LGBTIQ+ community. Because women and LGBTIQ+ people are also part of faith communities. And (unfortunately) women of faith, particularly women of colour, often do need protection from prejudice and discrimination based on their religion. Especially with the rise of white supremacy and Islamophobia.

This debate is about working towards a fairer and more inclusive society, where everyone is equally protected from harm. And if parliament passes this legislation in its current form it would be a big step in the wrong direction.

The good news is that there’s still time to stop that happening – and to influence this bill before it becomes law. Now that the draft legislation is finally public, the Government has declared that they will conduct a public consultation period – so it’s time for us all to speak up and demand that this bill protect people of faith, women and members of the LGBTIQ+ community equally.

Because our anti-discrimination laws should function as a shield to protect people from harm, not a sword to be wielded against others.

Diana Sayed has penned the above on behalf of Fair Agenda, where she is campaign manager. You can get involved in their campaign on this issue here.

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