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Coalition split over religious discrimination bill with MPs having ‘serious concerns’ over Folau clause | Australian politics

Coalition MPs are split over the government’s revised religious discrimination bill, with the attorney general, Michaelia Cash, holding urgent meetings with MPs before parliament returns to try to resolve the issue.

The push to introduce a bill in the final sitting fortnight this year comes almost three years after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, promised to introduce a new religious discrimination act after a review into religious freedom undertaken by Philip Ruddock in 2018.

Cash, who took over the bill’s progress from Christian Porter when she became attorney general in March, is now consulting on a third iteration of the draft legislation in an attempt to overcome internal resistance and fulfil an election promise.

Three issues are understood to face some resistance within the party room: 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”.

The Australian Christian Lobby has boasted it successfully pressured the government into including a Folau clause – a provision that would legally protect an individual from having their employment terminated as a result of them expressing their religious views. The issue gained prominence after footballer Israel Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia for social media posts suggesting homosexuals, adulterers, atheists and other “sinners” would go to hell.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, who attended one of a number of briefings with Cash this week, said he did not support the Folau clause.

“I just have serious concerns about a number of issues in relation to it [the bill] and the Folau clause is a major concern,” Entsch told Guardian Australia.

He said his position had not changed after previously indicating he would not support a bill that “reimposed” any discrimination through a religious discrimination act.

Other MPs and senators, including Andrew Bragg, Dean Smith, Tim Wilson and Dave Sharma are understood to hold similar reservations.

The third draft of the bill, which is still being finalised by Cash, comes more than two years after Porter released the government’s first exposure draft in early 2019.

That bill, which was described as “friendless”, received almost 6,000 submissions during the consultation process and was later revised after the backlash.

The government’s second exposure draft, designed to appease concerns of religious groups, was roundly criticised by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Medical Association and LGBTQ+ groups.

Conservative MPs, however, are pushing for the bill to be made a priority, warning that faith communities were expecting Morrison to deliver on the promise made before the last election.

It is understood that WA senator Matt O’Sullivan spoke to the party room during the past sitting fortnight about the issue, questioning the government’s priorities after it signed off on a bill relating to the legalising of mitochondrial donation.

Before the last election, Morrison penned a five-page letter to the heads of churches, promising to legislate a religious discrimination act as an election commitment.

He said in the letter that he would introduce legislation “to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, including on the basis that a person does not hold any religious belief or does not engage in any religious activity”.

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South Sydney Anglican Bishop Michael Stead would not comment on his discussions with the government on the legislation but said the bill was “well and truly overdue”.

“It’s indefensible that there is not protection for religious freedom,” Stead told Guardian Australia.

“We are very keen to see this resolved during this term of government, we don’t want this to be an election issue and we would hope for bipartisan support, for the Labor party’s support of the bill.

“We recognise that Covid has had an impact, we are not insensitive to the fact that a whole lot of the government’s legislative timetable and commitments have been disrupted, but that is why we are very keen to see it resolved now.”

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