Church leaders have put religious freedom on the agenda, speaking out against a Greens plan to scrap longstanding safeguards in the nation’s anti-­discrimination laws, while Labor hedges on the issue. Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders are objecting to the Greens plan to remove the religious exemptions, saying it could force people to act against their faith. The dispute is being shaped by debate over same-sex marriage as church groups seek assurances they will not be forced to conduct ceremonies that conflict with their beliefs. The government has promised a plebiscite and Labor has promised a conscience vote on marriage equality. The Greens risk losing support among religious groups worried the legislation will erode their religious rights, amid mixed signals from Labor as to whether it might back the changes.

“The Greens are pandering to niche politics,’’ said Keysar Trad, the treasurer of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. “This is no different to the submission to powerful lobbies that they criticise other parties of doing. In the interest of basic human rights, the Greens need to respect the majority as well as the minorities.” Greens senator Nick McKim stepped up the case to overhaul the Anti-Discrimination Act, saying churches should lose their exemption from key parts of the law. “The fundamental principle here is that Australians should be treated the same, whether or not they’re of one particular religion or another or whether in fact they’re not religious at all,” he told Sky News.

“And if the rest of the country is going to be required by legislation to behave in a particular way and not behave in other particular ways, we think that’s reasonable for the churches as well.” Labor’s policy calls for a review of the exemption. Asked where he stands on the issue, Bill Shorten has left his options open. Sydney Anglican bishop Michael Stead said Australia’s commitment to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights included the provision that everyone had the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. “This proposal from the Greens would renege on that commitment and undercut the sensible provisions of existing legislation by taking away the freedom of Australians to live according to their beliefs and to practise their faith in public,” Bishop Stead said.

“This would become increasingly fraught with difficulties if Australia were to legislate for same-sex marriage in the future. The removal of so-called religious exemptions could lead to ministers being forced to conduct such ceremonies or face prosecution.” Church leaders said a belief in religious freedom did not mean support for discrimination, and rejected suggestions people in need would be turned away from services on the basis of their race or sexual orientation. “Catholic agencies would never refuse to employ someone on the basis of their sexuality,” said Aoife Connors, from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. The Uniting Church opposed all discrimination beyond that necessary to practise religious faith.

“There are no defensible grounds” for discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer people in services such as aged care, according to Uniting Justice Australia director Elenie Poulos. Executive Council of Australian Jewry director Peter Wertheim said: “It would be wrong and unworkable for the law to compel people to do things that are contrary to their religious beliefs or conscience.’’ Presbyterian Church spokesman John McClean said the Anti-Discrimination Act should not be used to silence legitimate debate or to stop organisations following their moral convictions. “Do we want a society of bland uniformity? Or do we want people to be able to express their views and live according to their convictions?” Dr McClean asked.

“I’m sure Senator McKim would not expect an environmental organisation to be forced to employ someone who promoted coal mining and whale hunting! That would compromise the purpose of the organisation. “Churches and Christian organisations should be able to employ people with Christian convictions. It should be possible for parents to enrol their children in a school where teachers share their religious views, if that is what they want. And that means those schools have to be able to employ those teachers.” Dr McClean, who is vice principal of Christ College in Sydney, said concerns about limits on religious groups were fuelled last year by the attempt to take the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, to court for his role in promoting traditional marriage.

“The incident has made people wonder how similar legislation might be used in the future to silence debate or force churches to comply with a social agenda,” Dr McClean said. The Islamic community said the Greens should not be “selective” about the freedoms the party would fight for. “Marriage is a religious institution and must be allowed to continue to be conducted in accordance with the pre-set teachings of the religion in question,” Mr Trad said. “The Greens have always maintained that they are pro-choice in a variety of matters including marriage, abortion, etc. It would seem that they have become very selective about this choice. “Why would the Greens seek to penalize by law someone who does not wish to directly contribute, for reasons of personal or religious conviction, to a same gender union?

“Refusing to conduct a particular marriage ceremony because of a set of convictions should be a right that is respected just as much as they respect the right of some to want to enter into a union with the same gender.” Labor has kept its options open on the religious exemption in the Anti-Discrimination Act, in a stance that could leave Mr Shorten subject to criticism from church and community leaders ahead of the election. The Labor policy platform calls for a review of the religious exemption and generally argues against the need for special rules for any groups such as churches, making it difficult for Mr Shorten to back the existing safeguards. When asked about the issue, Mr Shorten avoided any commitment for or against the religious exemption.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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Government departments facing a July 1 deadline to comply with new federal gender guidelines are introducing new categories alongside male and female on forms and advising staff to refrain from assuming a person’s gender based on their name. Thousands of voters updating their personal electoral details before this year’s federal election have been given an option to list their gender as unspecified, as part of a broader push to eradicate gender-based assumptions. The Australian Electoral Commission has also recently started accepting Mx as a title, with a default gender of indeterminate. This year’s census on August 9 will be the first where people are provided the option to identify as male, female or “other”.

In February, the Australian Bureau of Statistics issued a “standard for sex and gender variables, 2016” which listed an “other” category. “The inclusion of the ‘please specify’ write-in facility for ‘Other’ allows respondents the opportunity to describe their sex using a term they are comfortable with,” the standard states. Government agencies are following the Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, updated in November last year, and issued by the Attorney-General’s Department. The ABS said the guidelines meant it had advised staff they “should refrain from making assumptions about a person’s gender identity based on indicators such as their name, voice or appearance, and suggests that during interviews interviewers should read out the question and all response options.”

Lisa Conolly from the ABS said the agency would be careful to protect the privacy for this relatively small population group when disseminating information from the census. She said the census program was planning to carry out a separate analysis of the “other” category. “The main aim is to be respectful to people who want to respond other than male or female,” she said. “We’re running it first in the census … we will learn from that how people react and respond to that category.” The AEC has issued forms that provide the opportunity to identify as a gender other than male or female. It first started accepting electors providing “indeterminate’’ as their sex in 2003. The Attorney-General’s Department guidelines were first introduced in July 2013 and updated last November.

The guidelines complement the amendment of the Sex Discrimination Act, which introduced new protections from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. The rollout of the guidelines is due to be completed by July 1 and a spokesman from the Attorney-General’s Department said they would be reviewed later this year. The changes will allow people to record their sex and/or gender in personal records as M (male), F (female) or X (Indeterminate/Intersex/Unspecified). The guidelines state that while individuals are encouraged to progressively ensure their documentation reflects their preferred gender, there are legitimate reasons why people may hold conflicting documents, such as to ensure safety while travelling overseas if they identify as other.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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The largest Queensland Parliament e-petition in history has been delivered to the State Parliament in response to a public outcry against the world’s worst abortion laws that are being proposed by Cairns MP Rob Pyne. Australian Christian Lobby Queensland Director Wendy Francis said the overwhelming opposition to the abortion bill should send a strong message to parliament that the community does not want the current abortion laws to be tampered with. In less than two weeks 23,869 people signed the petition calling on parliament to reject the abortion bill. The e-petition, which is an online petition service run by the Queensland Parliament, eclipsed the previous highest e-petition which related to Daylight Savings, by almost 4,000 signatures. 

It follows a Galaxy poll which reinforced the deep concerns voters have with removing abortion safeguards. The poll showed widespread acceptance that abortion harms the mental and physical health of a woman with 84% of those polled saying they believed abortion was harmful for women. Younger voters aged 18-34 years, in particular, have concerns with 90% expressing concern with regards to the physical and mental health of the woman. Just 38% of Queensland voters support abortion in cases where both mother and child are healthy. Ms Francis said it was clear that community attitudes towards abortion are changing. “We now know that the child in the womb is human, feels pain, that abortion techniques such as dismemberment and poisoning of the unborn child are barbaric,” Ms Francis said.

“We also know that many women and their families are hurting because of post-abortion grief. “This bill is a betrayal of women. The Queensland Parliament will be failing Queensland women if the only option they can offer for an unsupported pregnancy is abortion. “What the community and women are looking for are better options than abortion, which leads to terrible consequences for mother and child. “Responding to a pre-election questionnaire, both Labor and the LNP stated they had no plans to change Queensland’s abortion laws. “The people of Queensland expect parliamentarians to honour the commitments their parties make. “The ACL does not believe a conscience vote is warranted given the strong commitments that were made by the parties at the election.”

Source: Australian Christian Lobby

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