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Religious groups warn Australia government to retain clause allowing discrimination in proposed bill | Religion

Religious groups have warned the Morrison government to retain a clause allowing discrimination against staff who don’t share their faith in the Coalition’s religious freedom bill, as Liberal MPs reserve their right to cross the floor over the draft legislation.

The attorney general, Michaelia Cash, is preparing to introduce the religious discrimination legislation to parliament in the final sitting fortnight starting on 22 November and is attempting to navigate deep divisions within the party. The bill is now in its third iteration.

Greg Bondar, a spokesperson for conservative Christian lobby group FamilyVoice Australia, said opponents of “religious freedom” legislation incorrectly claimed organisations couldn’t hold religious views.

Bondar cited Qantas’s support for the sacking of Israel Folau and banks’ decisions on climate change-related lending as evidence institutions are allowed to act on “religious and political views”.

The bill has divided the Morrison government with several Liberal MPs, including Warren Entsch, speaking out on the need to strip back provisions that enable discrimination.

The three issues that will face opposition within the Liberal party room are the inclusion of a “Folau clause” that would give legal protection to someone expressing a statement of belief; conscientious objection provisions that would allow health practitioners to refuse to provide certain treatment; and the ability for religious institutions to discriminate against staff on the basis of religion to maintain a “faith-based ethos”.

It is understood that Entsch and North Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman are prepared to cross the floor if the government pushes ahead with a bill that includes the Folau clause and allows for conscientious objection.

Wentworth MP Dave Sharma said he was hopeful a resolution could be reached to fulfil the election commitment of protecting religious freedom but in a “minimalist” bill.

“I’m concerned to see this bill narrowly constructed so that it protects people of religion and faith on the basis of their religion and faith and allows them to practise that. It cannot be used to undermine existing rights, particularly among the LGBQTI community,” Sharma told Guardian Australia. “It really should be a shield and not a sword.”

In the Senate, Liberals Andrew Bragg and Dean Smith are also understood to be “reserving their right” to oppose the legislation, which is yet to be signed off by cabinet.

In consultations undertaken by Cash this week, MPs have raised concern about the clauses being unnecessary and “toxic”. One MP told Guardian Australia the bill was a “diabolical mess”.

After months of consultation including the involvement of Scott Morrison’s office, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martin Iles boasted in mid-October that the Folau clause had been put back into the bill.

Bondar, who Cash consulted on Tuesday, told Guardian Australia he was “confident the government will produce a very workable bill and adhere to the principles of religious freedom”.

Bondar said FamilyVoice was not shown a final version of the bill, but lobbied for the inclusion of provisions that gives religious schools and hospitals powers to maintain their ethos through hiring and firing decisions.

“The principles of religious freedom ought to protect both the individual and organisations,” he said.

“Those who are against religious freedom don’t want the bill to apply to institutions, and ask ‘How can an organisation hold religious views?’”

“Organisations can have political and religious views. Qantas does when they supported [Rugby Australia’s decision] to sack Israel Folau. And the Commonwealth Bank does when they believe in climate change.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive, Peter Wertheim, said smaller faiths wanted institutions that catered to the special needs of their communities to “continue to provide kosher food to people in aged care, or prayer facilities in a Jewish hospital” without being accused of discrimination.

But Wertheim said it was larger faiths including Christian churches which “want to preference members of their own faith in staffing” while Jewish institutions were “far too small to have that luxury”.

“We don’t begrudge them that – they want to create a faith community to further their ethos, we don’t have an issue with that.”

ECAJ supports the ability of medical practitioners to conscientiously object to a medical procedure – provided it is disclosed to patients who are then referred to another service.

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