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Town Hall protest continues to push back against Religious Freedom bill

Hundreds gathered on Saturday to rally against the second coming of the controversial legislation.

Photo by Liam Thorne.

For weeks, it might have seemed an unlikely sight — hundreds of protestors outside Town Hall no longer wearing P2 masks, but huddled under umbrellas, now in their waterproof gear. Yet the downpour across the city last Saturday did not deter supporters for the rally against the Religious Freedom bill.

This is the first rally in Sydney since Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with Attorney General Christian Porter, announced second drafts of the Coalition’s Religious Freedoms bills package in early December last year, during the peak of the bushfire crisis. 

“No one, to my knowledge, wants to prevent people the freedom to practice their religion in a safe and dignified manner,” said Shelley Argent, the National Spokesperson for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

However, Argent highlighted how the legislation of religious exemptions remains an issue as significant to the national LGBTQI+ community as same-sex marriage. 

“This bill is not about religious freedom, it is about privilege.”

“There will be no winners in this farce if it continues. Families will become divided and a ‘them and us’ mentality will increase.” 

The action was organised by Sydney-based activist group Community Action for Rainbow Rights (CARR). Across the speeches, references to the recent offshore detention of Chinese nationals and the climate crisis were made, highlighting a broad range of attacks under governments past and present. Notably, the silence of the Labor party — who have not risen to challenge the bills — was condemned by the crowd. 

The second draft of the original bill and its amendments are by no means a watering-down of the original bill, but appear to be a further attempt to appease groups such as Freedom for Faith, a Christian legal think tank, who thought the original bill was too vague and did not cover enough exemptions. 

Dr. David Abello, President of People with Disability Australia, expressed particular concern about the erosion of existing anti-discrimination legislation such as the Disability Discrimintion Act (1992) by these new bills. 

Indeed, disabled people and older LGBTQI people would have increased vulnerability with this legislation, according to Nathaniel Mitchell, an activist and nurse who also spoke at the rally. These bills would have a domino effect on health care and reproductive justice by essentially green-lighting the denial of legal and accessible services such as contraception, hormone treatment, PrEP+ and abortion.

Dashie Prasad, the National Union of Students’ (NUS)  Queer Office Bearer, notes that “the LGBTQAI+ community’s history with the medical establishment has not been a good one.” The NUS submission to the Attorney’s General Department on the amendments bill outlines that hostile environments, including within tertiary institutions, would be ultimately fostered against minorities and marginalised people if the bills were to pass. “Discrimination against others is not a way to protect people of faith from subsequent discrimination.” 

Lydia Shelley, a Muslim lawyer and member of the committee of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, told the crowd that these bills are about “how comfortable we are dehumanising others.”

She warned that “people of faith are being co-opted by intolerant faith leaders.” 

University of Sydney Queer Office Bearers Priya Gupta and Paola Ayre told Honi, “the protections afforded to ‘freedom of religious expression’ over protection from other forms of discrimination in this supposedly secular country, is indicative of where the Coalition government’s priorities lie. We must keep building the momentum of opposition seen at [Saturday’s] protest; this bill will not go away on its own.”

The protest marched promptly to Hyde Park fountain, energised by chants of “out of the closet and into the streets; out of the bars and into the streets” — originally used as far back as the 1970s — as well as the ever-popular “sexist, racist, anti-queer: Scomo is not welcome here.” 

Similar rallies were held over the weekend in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. 

With public submissions for the second draft having been closed since January 31, the waiting game for the government’s next move begins again. However, if Saturday’s action is anything to go by, bold dissent from LGBTQI+, disabled and marginalised communities remains a force to be reckoned with.