ACT government defends abortion clinic prayer ban as 'rights balancing'
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ACT government defends abortion clinic prayer ban as 'rights balancing'

The ACT government has defended its prayer ban outside abortion clinics in a submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry.

The joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade is examining the right to freedom of religion or belief.

A prayer vigil outside a Canberra abortion clinic before it was made illegal.

A prayer vigil outside a Canberra abortion clinic before it was made illegal.Credit:Graham Tidy

Terms of reference include looking at constraints on freedom of religion and potential conflict with other rights.

The ACT submission by justice minister Shane Rattenbury argues that freedom of religion should be considered as part of a balanced approach to broader human rights.

Mr Rattenbury says the Health Act amendment, which made it an offence to protest outside an abortion clinic, was "in response to community concerns about potentially intimidating and harassing conduct".

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Police have subsequently charged three pro-life supporters for silently praying in an exclusion zone around the ACT Health building on Moore Street.

Kerry Mellor, John Popplewell and Ken Clancy pleaded not guilty in the ACT Magistrates Court last Thursday and their case will be heard later this year.

In his submission to the committee, Mr Rattenbury says the anti-protest measures are "the least restrictive necessary and carefully justified in light of considerable public scrutiny".

He says it's part of a "rights balancing" process.

"It is inevitable that in any society rights, interests and responsibilities will compete and need to be arbitrated," he says.

"Rights should not be seen as having a clear or fixed hierarchy."

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference submission expresses concern that anti-discrimination laws are being used to target opponents of same-sex marriage.

"In the face of growing intolerance of religious or other conscientious beliefs ... it is very likely that people of faith will suffer discrimination and vilification of various kinds for holding fast to the traditional understanding of marriage," the submission says.

"People should be free to decline to endorse through their participation, activities or ceremonies that are contrary to their beliefs."

The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights group rejects any suggestion that anti-discrimination laws conflict directly with the right to freedom of religion.

"Some constraints on the external expression of religious beliefs may from time to time be appropriate in order to protect others from discrimination or breaches of their own human rights," the group's submission says.

Submissions to the committee close on April 28.

Michael Gorey is a reporter at The Canberra Times