Religious leaders spoke to a Senate hearing on Thursday to defend their exemptions in Australia’s new Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill.
The Bill controversially includes exceptions for religious organizations, effectively allowing them to discriminate against sexual orientation and gender identity minorities.
‘We believe that these exemptions, as they are called, are necessary to give expression to other fundamental human rights such as freedom of religion, association and cultural minorities,’ said Bishop Robert Forsyth from religious freedom advocates Freedom 4 Faith.
‘I am not defending the bigotry,’ Forsyth insisted.
‘I am not here to defend any particular view on any behaviours, but if a religious community holds certain deeply-held views about what is right and wrong, and you want them to maintain their integrity, you cannot force them to hire people who disagree – whether rightly or wrongly – with that community’s views.’
Forsyth added that it was necessary to provide ‘oases’ where ‘you can do things which could not be done otherwise’.
Dr Justin Koonin, co-convenor of New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby also spoke at the hearing.
‘Freedom of religion is an important right in a democratic society like ours, and we respect the right of individuals to practice the religion of their choice,’ said Koonin.
‘However, freedom of religion is not an absolute right and should not be used to deprive others of their rights to live their lives free from discrimination or their right to the highest attainable standards of health and education.’
Reverend Brian Lucas, general secretary of Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said that treatment for gender identity is not available in Catholic hospitals and that could be a problem if a transgender patient was transferred to one.
David Martin general manager of Christian aged-care provider HammondCare told the committee that they do not ‘discriminate in provision of care on any basis, whether race, religion, gender or sexual orientation’ but said he believes exemptions for religious organizations should remain in the Bill.
‘Faith-based organizations should continue to operate under internationally recognized religious freedoms to run services and employ staff in alignment with the openly and honestly held views of the organization,’ said Martin.
Social work expert in LGBTI aging, associate professor Mark Hughes at Southern Cross University told the committee that he ‘strongly support[s] the prohibition on discrimination by aged-care services run by religious organizations’.
‘My own experience as a social worker has taught me that decisions to access community and residential aged care services were often made in crisis situations such as having been diagnosed with a major illness or having been admitted to hospital and certainly in the context of scarce resources,’ said Hughes.
‘So rarely are people in the situation where they can shop around for the least discriminatory service, especially if they live in regional and rural areas. For me it seems inhumane that publicly funded aged care providers should be allowed to discriminate against some older Australians solely on the basis of their sexual
orientation or gender identity.’
Hughes cited research that found 40% of LGBTI people in Queensland who had received aged-care were treated badly due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Discrimination law expert Professor Simon Rice, chair of law reform and social justice at Australian National University told the committee that there was ‘no logical argument for privileging religious institutions’.