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Coalition’s religious discrimination bill will erode rights of people with disability, advocates say | Disability

Disability groups say the Morrison government’s proposed religious discrimination bill will erode the rights of people with a disability and allow legally protected “hurt and humiliation”.

In a submission to the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, more than two dozen disability support organisations have urged the Coalition to abandon the bill in its current form, saying there is widespread concern about its “harmful impacts”.

“We support religious freedom as essential to a thriving democracy, but not at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others,” the group’s submission states.

“The religious discrimination bill will encourage prejudice, stigma, denigration, division, and discrimination against people with disability, and undermine all efforts to build and sustain an inclusive Australia.”

The organisations – which include peak advocacy groups People With Disability Australia and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations – raise particular concern about the bill’s controversial statement of belief clause.

This part of the proposed legislation says “statements of belief” do not breach discrimination laws, giving legal protection to statements of religious belief or “a belief that the person genuinely considers to relate to the fact of not holding a religious belief”.

Examples given in the submission include a person with a disability being told they are suffering a “punishment from God” for their, or their parents’, sins. Or being told they may be “healed” by prayer or by “living virtuously”.

Disability advocates say this clause, which would override existing state legislation aimed at protecting people with disability, will result in more discrimination.

It warns that a “power imbalance” already exists between people with a disability and the large proportion of disability support services that are faith-based and control the delivery of personal care, housing, community access and emergency relief.

“We are concerned the religious discrimination bill will allow people with disability to be demeaned by statements of religious belief that are permitted under this bill, creating an unsafe and harmful environment,” it states.

A separate submission from Disability Voices Tasmania says the proposed bill, which was first promised in 2018 and is now in its third iteration, “introduces the right to discriminate in the name of religion”.

“People with disability constantly experience ridicule, offensive assumptions, bias, and intimidation. It does not matter whether this arises from hate, prejudice, misguided assumptions, and attitudes towards disability, or because of religious belief – or one person’s interpretation of religious belief,” the group’s chair, Michael Small, said.

“What matters is the hurt, humiliation, and long-term impact we experience as a result of it.”

Small said the legislation would override the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act which prohibits conduct that a reasonable person would anticipate would offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult, or ridicule another person on the basis of disability.

The proposed overriding of state and territory anti-discrimination laws has also been criticised by equality advocates, who fear protections for the LGBTQ+ community would also be undermined, including state laws banning conversion practices.

The Equality Australia chief executive, Anna Brown, told federal parliament’s human rights committee in December that the proposal to override state laws would weaken equal rights.

“It’s anathema to our democracy that state laws could be overridden in this way and that these hard-fought-for protections that have existed for decades, in many cases, could be unwound and overridden and undermined by this bill.”

The proposed legislation is being scrutinised by two parliamentary inquiries due to report by 4 February – shortly before the scheduled resumption of parliament.

The government was unable to pass the legislation in the final sitting of 2021 given deep divisions within the Coalition party room over the bill.

Labor is reserving its position on the legislation until the inquiries are completed. But the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, has said any new religious discrimination laws should not come at “the expense of discriminating on the basis of other people’s characteristics”.

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