The Coalition’s religious discrimination bill could strip states of the power to regulate religious institutions’ hiring practices, equality advocates and the Independent Education Union have warned.
Equality Australia and the IEU have said provisions of the bill designed to allow institutions such as schools to hire staff on the basis of faith could interfere with imminent changes in Victoria seeking to limit religious exemptions to equal opportunity law.
The federal attorney general, Michaelia Cash, is still yet to publicly release the bill, which will be debated when parliament resumes for the final sitting fortnight on Monday.
Despite ditching some of its most controversial provisions on medical practitioners’ ability to refuse certain procedures and the Folau clause on employers’ powers to regulate employees’ speech, the bill still faces stiff resistance.
The remaining provisions include protection for statements of religious belief and the right for schools to hire on the basis of faith, which the federal education minister, Alan Tudge, confirmed on Wednesday.
In Victoria, the Andrews government is seeking to reform religious exemptions to prevent schools discriminating against students and teachers on the basis of personal characteristics such as sexuality.
Under that bill, currently before parliament, schools would only be able to discriminate where “religious belief is an inherent requirement of the job”, meaning it could be a requirement for a school principal but not a maths teacher or cleaner.
The changes have been vigorously opposed by the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia.
The National Catholic Education Commission has called for the bill to be passed “as quickly as possible” to ensure religious schools’ ability to set their own ethos was protected against state legislation, including Victoria’s proposed reforms.
A Victorian government spokesperson said it was continuing to monitor the proposed commonwealth bill and “will carefully review any gaps in protections for Victoria after any commonwealth legislation is enacted”.
“We would hope that any changes allow for Victorians to continue to be free to live and work free from discrimination.”
The chief executive of Equality Australia, Anna Brown, said the Victorian reform ensured that a religious organisation “can only discriminate against people based on religion when religion is actually relevant to the role.”
“This will bring Victorian law into step with 21st century community expectations and the practices of many faith-based organisations that have diverse workforces and seek to treat people with dignity and respect,” Brown said.
“Overriding hard-fought protections in Victoria and other states would be an extraordinary act of overreach by the Morrison government.”
IEU assistant federal secretary, Anthony Odgers, said it would be concerning if the federal changes on religious institutions were not limited to those where faith is an inherent requirement.
“The previous bill proposed to continue what is in section 351 of Fair Work Act, which is a blanket capacity for employers to discriminate,” Odgers said.
“If what’s written about the federal proposal is correct, it would scrub the Victorian legislation in its entirety, it would ride right over the top of it.”
The IEU is strongly supportive of the Victorian legislation.
“We’re opposed to the concept of employers in faith-based schools being granted some sort of preference to only hire people from that faith. We don’t believe the majority of employers are even seeking that capacity.”
The bill also protects statements of belief by overriding state laws such as Tasmania’s prohibition on speech that “offends, insults or humiliates” people based on other characteristics such as race, sex, disability or sexuality.
Liberal MP Warren Entsch said he was still concerned about elements of the bill, including the potential to override state laws, saying he believed “states and territories have the right to make their own decisions.”
“I know there is an argument that the Tasmanian law goes too far, but that is between them and the Tasmanian people,” Entsch said.
Entsch welcomed the changes made to the bill so far and also said he was pleased that Cash had made clear the government’s position on children in the letter to the Australian Law Reform Commission regarding the review of discrimination laws.
However, when asked if he was prepared to cross the floor, Entsch said: “I don’t make threats, I just do what I believe is right.”
“There are some significant steps in the right direction, but I still question the need for it in the first place.
“There are elements of it I still need to examine further, and consult further with individuals that I have a huge amount of respect for.
“I am not comfortable after spending a huge part of my political life arguing to remove discrimination from some elements of our community to sit back quietly and allow others to have the authority to reinstate some of that discrimination, I am just not comfortable with that.”
The statement of belief clause in the new federal laws will include a “reasonable person” test that would allow the statement as long as it was not malicious; or would be seen by a reasonable person to harass, threaten, intimidate or vilify another person or group.
The statement of belief will also not be allowed to urge conduct that could result in a criminal offence.