The New South Wales Labor government will be moving a series of amendments to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 at the beginning of August. These amendments will make it “unlawful to, by a public act, incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of persons, because of their religious belief, affiliation or activity”.
While these amendments are being presented as a commonsense updating of discrimination laws to protect religious people, in reality they are a significant concession to the conservative right and potentially strengthen anti-LGBTI discrimination in a variety of ways.
The basic premise of the proposal, that there is a wave of discrimination in Australia against people because of their religion, is mostly a fabrication of right-wing politicians. While some religious groups, such as Muslims, still suffer from discrimination, the idea that religious people in general, and Christians in particular, are experiencing a wave of intolerance is laughable.
This myth began in the aftermath of the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite, as conservative religious organisations argued that same-sex marriage would lead to the oppression of Christians. It is also a prominent theme of far-right politics internationally, most notably in the United States.
While conservatives drone on and on about Christians being a new persecuted minority, the reality is that religious institutions are the ones doing the discriminating, not suffering from it.
In 2021, Steph Lentz, a high school English teacher, was fired from Sydney’s Covenant Christian School after she came out as a lesbian. In the same year, another openly gay teacher Karen Pack was forced out of her job at Morling College, also in Sydney, after the school received a letter urging the administration to “distance itself from her demonic actions”. The Illawarra Grammar School faced a backlash from parents earlier this year following revelations that incoming principals and board members would have to sign a statement saying they oppose same-sex marriage.
Private religious schools also have the right to discriminate against LGBTI students. This potentially impacts a large cohort of young people: 688,000 students attend private schools across Australia, 94 percent of which are religious.
The Australian Christian Lobby is arguing that if there were more religion-based legal protections they would have been able to block the ACT government’s acquisition of Calvary Public Hospital, which had been run by a Catholic organisation that refused to administer abortions since the 1970s.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights President Kerry Weste pointed out in a statement that the amendments do not make a clear distinction “between freedom of expression directed against the ideas and tenets of a religion, and vilification against persons or groups because they hold or express religious beliefs”. So, if you ridicule or are contemptuous of someone, or a group of people, for believing in some religious nonsense, ranging from the existence of God to the idea that gays are sinners who are going to burn in hell, then you could potentially be liable under these amendments. We’ve already had a taste of how this can go down with the furore around comedian Reuben Kaye making a joke about Jesus on Network 10’s The Project. Kaye was hounded by conservative religious organisations in the aftermath—with these amendments, he could also have been hit with legal action.
We need to hit the streets to push back against the Christian right’s agenda and call out the ALP for embracing this nonsense. The fight in NSW will precede a national fight when the Australian Law Reform Commission hands down its recommendations for a federal overhaul of religious discrimination law in December. This will likely lead to a similar federal bill.
Community Action for Rainbow Rights is holding a protest to oppose the amendments on Saturday 5 August.