Last week, submissions closed in the consultation for the second exposure drafts of a package of legislation known as the Religious Freedom bills. Many forget, but this road began when Rugby Australia sacked Israel Folau for posting a message on social media declaring "hell awaits" homosexuals who are "living in sin". Since then, politicians have released multiple draft bills that make it unlawful to discriminate against any Australian on the basis of their religion.
To date, these draft submissions are part of an ongoing divide, mostly between religious and LGBTI communities, that leave mainstream Australia confused. Indeed, Australians are more united around confusion on what these bills mean, rather than the waving of any particular flag.
It's not their fault either. As a piece of legislation, the main bill is confusing since it fundamentally goes against its own aims.
Specifically, it mentions wanting to create an Australia whose citizens and communities, "regardless of their religious belief or activity", can "participate fully" and are "entitled to the equal and effective protection of the law". Many of us in civil society say the bill severely undermines that principle.
Section 42 of the draft bill proposes to exempt certain "statements of belief" from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination protections, provided that they do not "threaten" or "seriously intimidate". LGBTI and civil society leaders alike are concerned this will mean that intimidation, provided it's not serious, will be protected under law.
Given that there is a broad range of possible views and acts that may constitute a religion, and therefore a "statement of belief", it follows that a very broad range of intimidating behaviour may be protected. As such, this bill is perceived by progressives to normalise prejudice, and there are concerns it will increase the legal privilege granted to individuals who exercise it.
There's a feeling that our federal leaders will not bring religious and LGBTI communities together on this issue, and instead they will wedge us against one another. Many in the LGBTI community have lost faith in the bill, and have experienced hurt from its very existence.
Indeed, I know what it feels like to be hurt by religion, and I know what it feels like to grow up in one of the most conservative and religious parts of the country. This hurt is one that many in the LGBTI community experience, and it is a pain that continues today.
But progressives like myself should not lose faith in religious freedom. If we do, we risk doing so at our own peril. Opposing this bill, and the leadership that seek to have it, should not mean we oppose all bills that seek to improve the lives of faith-based communities.
I grew up in Sydney's Hills District, colloquially known as the "Bible belt" and the birthplace of Hillsong. I spent my time in school surrounded by many conservative, sometimes religious, peers and teachers. It was with these folk that I attended a church youth group, and, eventually, came out to.
I never went back to that church. I lost some friendships, parents gossiped, and some teachers judged. But there were also many religious folk who came to my aid - they were warm, welcoming and celebrated the idea of diversity.
This coming-of-age experience as a young gay man showed me that people are complex and cannot be broken down to a single element. That would be a form of intolerance in itself. When Wilson Gavin died, I wrote about the complexity of people, and the toxicity that can exist when we reduce them down to nothing. Religion and who we love are deeply divisive topics, and when in the mix together, they serve to be controversial and divergent from one another, like when oil meets water.
Despite this, they are also powerful and significantly personal. People will defend them and go through hurt to uphold them. They are both so intrinsically linked to our identity.
It is for this reason LGBTI people, and progressives alike, cannot let the pain we may have experienced get in the way of differentiating between religious freedom that is peaceful and personal and so-called religious beliefs that seek to spread harm, intolerance and prejudice. All Australians should be free to practise religion if they choose, and these choices should not impact their ability to engage in public life. As such, progressives should support measures which aim to eliminate discrimination in all its forms.
However, the government should grant this same protection to other communities. LGBTI and civil society leaders are concerned this is not going to be the case if the proposed bill becomes law in its current form.
- Jack Whitney is the convener of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.