Australian churches request exemption from anti-discrimination laws

(Wikimedia Commons/Wongm)St. Mary of the Angels Basilica in Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Christian churches in Australia are calling for a new law that would limit and override anti-discrimination laws, including in the matter of hiring and firing employees.

According to Sydney Morning Herald, the proposal, similar to a charter of rights, aims to codify and expand the exemptions to anti-discrimination laws that currently apply to churches when it comes to hiring and firing, and create further protections for people who do not want to associate with same-sex marriages.

"We've never needed to protect religious freedom before, but now we do," said Patrick Parkinson, a board member at Freedom for Faith, which submitted the Religious Freedom Act proposal.

The submission was spearheaded by prominent church groups, including Hillsong, the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney, maintained that the proposal does not seek to "wind back any legal rights of those who identify as LGBT" or seek any "special privileges" for people of faith. He said that the goal was to allow people of faith to "live and let live" with other members of the community.

The proposal also highlighted the need for protections for church-run organizations — including schools and aged care homes — to hire and fire according to their values.

"Any religious organisation would want to maintain its moral standards around family life and sexual conduct - at least the right to do so. Christians are not into freedom to discriminate, they're really into freedom to select," Parkinson said.

The churches are also requesting changes to the Marriage Act to ensure that facilities such as school chapels cannot be used for same-sex weddings against the wishes of the diocese, even if permission was given by the school principal.

The group is also asking for the right for parents to remove their children from public school programs that are not consistent with their values.

The request for religious freedom protections was made by several churches in Australia following the release of the results of a national postal survey in November, when 61.6 percent of voters supported same-sex marriage.

The churches have acknowledged that there was "nothing" in Liberal senator Dean Smith's same-sex marriage bill that prevented people from holding, expressing or teaching their religious beliefs. However, they have raised concerns about the "long term consequences of same-sex marriage" for religious rights, and the potential for future governments to undermine those freedoms.

Parkinson contended that a religious freedom law on the federal level "may be rarely invoked" against the states and territories, but would have a "more educative effect" as to the legal boundaries. It would be strengthened by section 109 of the constitution, which holds that Commonwealth law will prevail if it comes into conflict with state law.

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