The Coalition is fine-tuning new religious discrimination laws, but will stand firm against calls from faith groups and conservative MPs to legislate “positive” rights that would give them a “licence to discriminate”.
Federal cabinet signed off on the proposed new anti-discrimination laws on Tuesday afternoon, agreeing to push ahead with a bill which mirrors other existing anti-discrimination laws, such as those covering age, race and disability.
But the decision not to go further could see the partyroom split over the proposal, with conservatives such as Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Barnaby Joyce wanting more robust protections in place.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, said the government still had some “fine tuning” to do on the bill, but would release the legislation for consultation within the next few weeks.
“I am close to finalising a draft bill. There is some fine-tuning now being conducted and I expect a draft bill would be released in the next few weeks, before Parliament resumes in September,” Porter said.
But he made clear the government would not be bending to the demands being made by some faith groups and a clutch of conservative MPs for the government to enshrine “positive” rights through a religious freedom act.
“What we aim to deliver was rightly described by Anglican Public Affairs Commission chairwoman Carolyn Tan today as being a “shield” against discrimination, and not a ‘sword’,” Porter said.
“The laws will protect people from being discriminated against, but will not give them a licence to discriminate against other people.”
Porter said the release of the bill would trigger further consultations with MPs and senators from all parties, religious groups and other key stakeholders, including business and LGBTIQ+ groups.
Porter has previously told Guardian Australia that he was confident the government’s proposed new laws would provide a “powerful avenue” for people of faith to be protected against discrimination, suggesting it would prevent a repeat of the high profile Israel Folau sacking.
The government hopes the bill will be introduced and considered by both the House and Senate before the end of the year, where it will also be examined by a Senate inquiry.
Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, on Tuesday added his voice to the call for the laws to go beyond protection from discrimination, saying there needed to be rights for religions to “express ourselves”.
Davies said an example would be a right for an Anglican school to sack teachers who did not “adhere to the Anglican ethos”.
Speaking in Sydney to a religious freedom forum organised by New South Wales Labor MP Tania Mihailuk and Liberal MP Damien Tudehope, Davies said it was not enough that religions be granted exemptions from existing anti-discrimination law, because this implied religions were themselves discriminatory.
“We don’t want people who hold religious faith to be seen as an exception in discrimination,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We must have the freedom to express our faith in a positive way, and not be, as it were, marginalised into an exemption, as if we are discriminating, and [people are saying] ‘We’ll let them do that’”
“We’re not discriminating. We’re just expressing our views and our opinions in a full democratic, free society.”
In November last year, 34 Anglican schools in Sydney backtracked over a controversial letter they wrote to the federal education minister, asking him to preserve a clause in the Sex Discrimination Act that allowed religious schools to fire teachers or expel students on the basis of sexuality.
Davies and prominent principals later apologised, saying the schools did not want to retain that power, and would prefer to replace it with a positive right about protecting ethos.
On Tuesday, he said this should be in the federal legislation.
“In an Anglican school we want to make sure that people are going to adhere to the Anglican ethos of the school. They may not necessarily be Anglican but I do not want them to undermine that. I don’t want them to express views and teach children in a way that is contrary to the ethos and mission of our school.
“Australia is built on diversity of opinion, we’re multicultural and multifaith. We want the freedom to actually express ourselves in a way in which people can actually understand who we are.”
Scott Morrison privately met with 21 leaders of religious groups earlier in August, but Davies said the prime minister had given no indications how far the bill would go.
“The prime minister has not committed to a positive right. But he has committed to consultation. Once the text of the bill is out there in draft legislation, we can then talk to him from there.”
“I think he is going to keep his cards close to his chest until he discusses it with the party room and that is fair enough,” he said.
Porter made clear that the Australian Law Reform Commission was in the process of inquiring into religious exemptions to discrimination laws, which is designed to ensure that existing legislative exemptions to discrimination based on a person’s identity were limited or removed, while also protecting the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way “consistent with their religious ethos”.
“The ALRC inquiry is an entirely separate process which does not cross-over with the Religious Discrimination Bill, which is focused on protecting people from discrimination on the basis of their religious belief, or lack thereof,” Porter said.