Religion to lose protected status

Religious organisations running schools, health and aged-care services face losing key exemptions to Labor's new anti-discrimination laws under recommendations that could see them sued by people who disagree with church ethos.

A parliamentary inquiry has found Labor's proposed laws need to be substantially changed, including to dump exceptions that would have allowed religious organisations to discriminate against individuals when providing services, where such discrimination would otherwise be unlawful.

Under Labor's draft bill to consolidate the five pieces of legislation that make up Australia's anti-discrimination laws, religious exemptions were to be largely preserved -- except in relation to commonwealth-funded aged-care providers because of concerns about discrimination against older same-sex couples trying to get into facilities.

In a majority report, Labor and Greens members of the Senate legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee had found "no organisation should enjoy a blanket exception from anti-discrimination law when they are involved in service delivery to the general community".

Instead, the committee recommends amendments modelled on Tasmania's 1998 Anti-Discrimination Act -- which has the narrowest religious exceptions of any state or territory.

Last night, the opposition demanded that Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus rule out abandoning the religious exemption and said church schools could find themselves subject to complaints to the Human Rights Commission and brought before the Federal Court.

"People who profess a religion -- and that constitutes seven Australians out of 10 -- are entitled to expect government to keep its social engineering ambitions away from their religious beliefs," the Coalition's legal affairs spokesman, George Brandis, said.

Australian Association of Christian Schools executive officer Robert Johnston vowed to continue opposing the bill, saying he feared it was a "back-door attempt" at a human rights bill. The only exceptions that should be reconsidered should be to introduce a "robust provision for the protection of the freedom of religion".

"We clearly don't have this within the proposed exposure draft, let alone what the Senate committee is proposing in its report," Mr Johnston said.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference general-secretary Brian Lucas said last night the recommendations made by the Senate committee would "undermine religious freedom" and have "some impact" on services provided, from aged-care facilities to health providers to schools.

"Anti-discrimination law has to strike a balance between competing values, and the exemptions as they are currently expressed by the commonwealth express that balance," Father Lucas said.

"The fundamental value here of freedom of religion has to be recognised, not just as an exemption but as a significant part of the way we live in a pluralist society. I don't think the Senate committee report has done justice to that."

The committee has also recommended that domestic violence should be included as grounds for discrimination, along with "irrelevant criminal record" - a move sought by the ACTU.

But the report found a proposed section that makes it unlawful to offend or insult others should be removed and concluded "substantial amendments are necessary if the consolidated legislation is to fulfil its stated intent of providing a clearer, simpler law".

Last night, Mr Dreyfus said the report would require close consideration and a full response would be made shortly.

"This is a complex project and I want to ensure the final consolidation carefully balances the two objectives of defending free speech while protecting Australians from discrimination," Mr Dreyfus said.

The reforms have attracted furious debate.

While many church-based groups were unhappy that commonwealth-funded aged-care services would not get the same exemptions available to religious organisations under Labor's bill, others warned that exemptions undermined the principles of non-discrimination.

As well as recommending the removal of exceptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against individuals in the provision of services, the committee has called for changes that could require such organisations to make publicly available a document outlining their plans to use a clause that provides an exception for conduct that conforms to the doctrine of a religion or is needed to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion.

The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby argued limitations imposed on religious exceptions in relation to aged care should be extended to other areas.

Coalition senators on the committee released a dissenting report.