The Coalition's religious freedom bill could allow taxi drivers to refuse guide dogs on religious grounds, and domestic violence victims to be refused help because they broke the sacred bond of marriage, the ACT Human Rights Commission says.
Commissioner Helen Watchirs said in a submission to the federal government that she has had to deal with complaints from women with disabilities who have been told their disability was punishment for a sin, as well as women who were refused services because they left a violent marriage.
She had seen "a number" of cases where taxi or Uber drivers had made statements of "alleged religious belief" that dogs were unclean, and refused rides.
Her comments come as the Australian Industry Group called for changes to the Coalition's religious freedom bill, which is out for consultation.
Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the bill could increase conflict and disharmony in the workplace.
"The potential for the provisions of the bill to be used to advance and protect extremist opinions or behaviour, of whatever kind, in the name of an undefined religious belief should not be underestimated," he said.
One of the most contentious parts of the planned law is a section that allows people to make a "statement of belief" without fear of being caught up in any state or federal discrimination law. The only limit to statements of belief is that they are not malicious, do not urge a serious criminal offence, and are not likely to harass, vilify or incite hatred.
Dr Watchirs said Canberrans had raised concern that the provision could allow race, sex or other discriminatory comments to be "disguised" as statements of belief.
The clause could allow an employer to say "women should not be in leadership" and refuse to promote women, the commission said. The clause would make it more difficult for LGBTI people to establish discrimination, she said, urging the government to scrap the clause.
Dr Watchirs also called for the removal of a section that would allow religious bodies to bring a discrimination claim.
The clause would allow a church to bring a complaint against a mosque, or allow a religious body to bring an action against an individual, she said.
"This approach is unprecedented in all other federal discrimination law, and, in particular, would create a significant power imbalance in circumstances where a corporation seeks to vindicate its 'rights' against an individual," Dr Watchirs said.
The federal Human Rights Commission said in its submission that it was difficult to understand how a corporation could have a religious or any other belief, and it was axiomatic that human rights extended only to humans.
Dr Watchirs also objected to a third controversial aspect of the bill, which would have protected Israel Folau if it had been in place when he was sacked by Rugby Australia for declaring that hell awaits gay people. Under the Coalition's proposal, businesses with revenue of $50 million or more would no longer be able to limit their employees from making statements of belief outside work hours - unless it would cause the business "unjustifiable hardship".
Dr Watchirs said the clause gave preferential treatment to the biggest businesses.
The industry group's Mr Willox said the restrictions on businesses were unreasonable.
"Businesses need to be able maintain appropriate standards of conduct in their workplaces. Businesses also need to be able to impose reasonable requirements on their employees with regard to social media and regular media activity, to prevent their reputations, their brands and other legitimate commercial interests being damaged.
"As drafted, the Bill would give employees a very wide ability to argue that they should not have to comply with particular reasonable company policies," he said.
It would be open for employees to challenge the requirement to wear a uniform. An employee could also be protected from action by their employer if he or she made a statement of belief during a meal break that caused offence to other workers.
"This outcome is unjustified and unbalanced with the need for employers to protect the welfare of other employees and to provide safe, harmonious and productive workplaces," he said.
Dr Watchirs also raised concerns about a clause that would allow health practitioners to refuse treatment on conscientious grounds, unless it is an emergency. In Canberra doctors are allowed to refuse abortions on conscientious or religious grounds other than in an emergency. But the Commonwealth bill is much more broad.
The federal commission pointed to the long list of health services in the bill, including an Aboriginal health practice, dental, medical radiation, midwifery, occupational therapy, optometry, psychology and others.
"The relevance of all of these categories is not immediately clear. For example, there has been no attempt to explain the circumstances in which a doctor may want to conscientiously object to providing a service in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practice, or in relation to dentistry, optometry or podiatry," it said.
The bill could override state and territory law, and appears to envisage a wide range of possible adverse health impacts - perhaps even the death of a patient - in the name of protecting the freedom of religion of health practitioners.
Dr Watchirs welcomed the federal move to protect freedom of religion, which she said was not properly protected under Australian law. ACT law gives Canberrans the right to "freedom of thought, conscience, and religion", including the right to practice and teach.