Employers/Unions warning on Religious Discrimination Bill

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Both employers and unions have called on the government to make changes to the second draft of the Religious Discrimination bill, concerned that the proposed laws may increase risk of bullying and harassment in workplaces.

The original bill was created to prohibit discrimination in areas of public life on the grounds of public belief and activity.  It prohibited direct and indirect discrimination.

The second draft of the bill has some changes, brought about by concerns raised by various conservative religious organisations.  These changes include provisions for various religious institutions, hospitals and providers to preserve the ‘religious ethos’ of the institution enabling them to engage staff and customers based on religious grounds.  The bill also contains a protection for “associates of religious individuals” to protect people from discrimination based on the religion of their friends or relatives.

Further to this, the bill also makes changes to health practitioners.  Medical practitioners cannot discriminate against individuals based on gender or other characteristics, however doctors, pharmacists and other medical practitioners can refuse treatment provided they refuse to do so for all patients.

Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox and ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien have written to the Attorney General Mr Porter, expressing their concerns that the bill would be detrimental to workplaces, reducing acceptance for religious diversity and cause harm to employees and customers.

Under the bill employers are prevented from setting their own standards of conduct, ACTU and Ai Group said this is inconsistent with employer obligations under existing workplace, work health and safety and anti-discrimination laws.

“It applies onerous limitations in some workplaces, while conferring extensive positive rights to discriminate on religious grounds in others,” they said. 

ACTU and Ai Group are concerned with the bill’s “statement of belief” provisions, which make it particularly difficult for employers to address standards of conduct where employee’s make “intimidatory or offensive” statements about religion.  Under the bill, a person’s right to make a “statement of belief” overrides all federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

“Limiting employers’ rights to take reasonable steps to protect workers is incredibly problematic and presents serious legal, reputational and operational risks for Australian businesses,” they said. “We consider these provisions are unnecessary, unworkable and will cause harm, disputation and confusion in Australian ­workplaces.”

While religious organisations are welcoming the bill, there are many concerns raised by various authorities that have not been addressed in the second draft.  These include issues raised by the Australian Council of Human Rights, the Diversity Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

It is expected that the Attorney General undertake further consultation before the bill is presented to Parliament.

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This article has been prepared by Vanessa Baglieri, Marketing Manager. The information provided should not be relied upon as legal advice. You should speak with Rosa Raco directly about your specific circumstances via email rraco@wrlaw.com.au or phone 03 54996131.