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PM: Laws on religious freedom are a 'shield not a sword'

Politics

Scott Morrison will personally introduce into parliament the government’s long-promised bill giving religious Australians greater protection from discrimination laws.

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The bill is set to be released on Tuesday before the prime minister introduces it into the House of Representatives.

It’s expected to be debated next week during the final sitting days of the year and go off to a Senate inquiry.

Mr Morrison told his party room the bill was about tolerance and balancing freedom with responsibility.

“It is a religious discrimination bill, not a religious freedom bill,” he told coalition members.

The prime minister also described it as a shield and not a sword.

Some partyroom concerns were raised about the bill, including a contentious clause designed to protect people who made statements about their religious beliefs.

Others stressed the need to deliver on the 2019 election promise and get the legislation to a vote.

Separately, crossbencher Pauline Hanson indicated she wouldn’t support the bill in its current form, while Rex Patrick and Rebekha Sharkie didn’t see the need for it.

Equality Australia, which lobbies for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, was worried some of the bill’s “worst elements” remained.

Chief among the group’s objections was the clause for people making statements about their beliefs.

“This will allow someone to be given a defence to a discrimination complaint if they say offensive, insulting, inappropriate, unacceptable things,” chief executive Anna Brown told ABC radio.

“In broad terms, it overrides existing protections for vulnerable groups, it compromises access to judgement-free health care and inclusive workplaces.”

Ms Brown was concerned a nurse, for example, could be protected if they told someone with HIV the illness was a punishment from God.

“That person on the receiving end (would be, under the bill) prevented from bringing a complaint against the person that made that statement because their statement of belief is protected,” she said.

The coalition maintained the laws would not protect people from statements considered by a reasonable person to harass or vilify.

It earlier scrapped a clause that would have provided protection in situations akin to Israel Folau’s sacking by Rugby Australia, following his claim hell awaited gay people.

The revamped bill would also let religious schools preference hiring people of the same faith as long as this position was stated publicly.

Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli thought a watered down bill was better than nothing.

“It’s good that there is a bill being put forward … that there might be something about basic human protections for people of faith and people of no faith,” he said.

“If someone’s conduct is such that they are completely contrary and acting in ways contrary to the mission of the organisation … the organisation should be free to act accordingly.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese labelled it “extraordinary” the government hadn’t sought to work with Labor on the bill.

“I support religious freedom, people need to be able to practice their faith,” he said.

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