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Religious Exemptions Bill fervently rejected by protestors

Saturday's rally was one of many protests scheduled to take place across Australia concerning the Bill

Photo courtesy of Community Action Against Homophobia

Hundreds gathered on Oxford Street on Saturday afternoon to protest the Religious Exemptions in Anti-Discrimination Legislation, which is currently being reviewed by the Australian Law Reform Commission. 

Organised by Community Action Against Homophobia, the rally argued that  proposed changes in federal anti-discrimination legislation were a backlash on marriage equality and an excuse to discriminate against the LGBTQIA+ community. 

As it is, religious schools, hospitals and aged-care facilities in NSW have the right to fire staff and expel students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The new Bill would not only give these institutions more freedom to discriminate, but also more protection under the law than they already have. 

The scene in Taylor Square was one of community and solidarity. A bubble machine whirred and rained down on everyone throughout the speeches, dogs and kids were among the crowd, and groups from Satanic Australia to the Messiah College stood side by side. 

Among the speakers was Greens MP for Newtown Jenny Leong, who spoke to the spiteful nature of the public discussions surrounding religious freedom at the moment. Leong reminded the crowd that this bill is revenge initiated by those who lost the same-sex marriage plebiscite and that we will defeat it with the same community action that defeated the ‘no’ campaigners in 2017.

Community Action Against Homophobia said that this is nothing but an excuse to sack gay teachers, to expel gay students, and to refuse business and service to the gay community. 

Father Rod Bower, famous for the provocative, progressive signage outside his Gosford Church, also spoke about freedom, in some depth. “To be truly free is to be free from the need to discriminate,” he said. 

What is plainly obvious about this religious freedom Bill is that it is not about freedom at all. It does not care to protect the religious freedom of minority religions, but rather, the interests of those who already have disproportionate amounts of privilege and power. Father Rod reminded the crowd that the vast majority of Australian Christians stand with them and that the Australian Christian Lobby do not represent them or him.

Religious freedom has been on the mind of the Liberal government since 2017 when Malcolm Turnbull first appointed a panel to assess whether freedom of religion was adequately protected in Australia. This discussion coincided with the same-sex marriage plebiscite, and with the Safe Schools’ controversy, arousing a collective moral panic which increased opposition to each of these campaigns individually. 

The Religious Freedom Review made 20 recommendations to improve religious freedom when it reported back to the government in May 2018, but came to the conclusion that Australians enjoy an extremely high degree of religious freedoms, and that basic and adequate protections exist in Australian law. 

Despite this, the conversation is ongoing. The Australian Law Reform Commission is due to report the findings of its inquiry into the Framework of Religious Exemptions in Anti-Discrimination Legislation on April 20, 2020, so this issue will persist in the public sphere into the foreseeable future. It is certain that this rally was only the first of many.

Similar actions in Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Canberra are planned later in the month.