Labor has pledged to work with the Coalition to introduce new religious protections into the law, but equality advocates said the plan could erode existing rights and even trigger High Court challenges to state anti-discrimination laws.
A day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans for a series of workshops for MPs to be consulted on the design of new laws, longtime campaigner Rodney Croome said he was concerned associated changes to existing laws on marriage, charities and anti-discrimination could see weaken current protections.
Moderate Liberal MPs have welcomed the Prime Minister’s approach, led by Attorney-General Christian Porter, for the process to be uniting and bipartisan.
Mr Croome, spokesman for advocacy group Just Equal, feared the government could seek to add a positive right to religious freedom that could be used as a stepping stone for court challenges.
He called on Mr Porter and Labor leader Anthony Albanese to consult LGBTI groups and rule out weakening existing protections.
“My home state of Tasmania is particularly vulnerable because our Anti-Discrimination Act is the only one in Australia that prohibits both discrimination against LGBTI people in faith-based organisations and hate speech in the name of religion.
“Over the last half century, Australia’s anti-discrimination laws have fostered an immensely more inclusive, equal and compassionate nation.
“Any move to water down Australia’s discrimination laws is an offence against our core national value of a fair go for all.”
Mr Croome said a national charter of rights could protect all Australians from discrimination equally.
Labor on Wednesday said it would work with the government, including on plans to add a religious discrimination commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“We are willing to have discussions with the government and work with the government on a religious discrimination and freedom act,” home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally told ABC radio.
“We are waiting to have those conversations. We do stand ready, though, to work with the government on this.”
Mr Morrison wants the laws in place by Christmas and MPs on both sides have been told to consult with their constituents about the plan.
“What the government are talking about is an issue that goes to protecting religion in an affirmative way as a freedom,” Senator Keneally said.
“That’s a conversation we are having with them.”
Campaigning ahead of the May 18 election, Mr Morrison said the Coalition wanted to “complete the set” of Australia’s anti-discrimination protections.
Equality Australia legal advocacy director Lee Carnie said the longer process was welcome but LGBTIQ community and women’s groups should be consulted.
“There is no question that our laws should ensure that all people are protected from discrimination. As a community who has too often experienced the harmful effects of discrimination, we stand with people of faith in their calls for greater protection under the law.”
Mr Morrison told the Coalition party room meeting this week religion remained a deeply personal issue for many people.
“We do not want religion to become an issue of division for Australians,” he said.
“We will work through the issue in a manner to achieve enhanced unity, not for any political purposes”.
Last month, Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews called for the laws to follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, balancing the rights of believers with the wider Australian community.