By MARGARITE CLAREY
Queer students of faith have joined critics of the federal coalition’s religious discrimination bill, saying it undermines efforts to build safe and inclusive university cultures.
Set to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of “religious belief or activity”, the draft bill exempts a person who makes a statement "in good faith” from current federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.
Convenor of Monash University’s Queer People of Faith group Basia Mitula says the passing of these laws would embolden groups on campus to share queerphobic views.
“All it takes is one vocal or extreme person to cause a landslide,” they said.
“If the law passes, all of the bridging work that has been done between queer people and their religious communities might end up being partially or completely erased.”
Monash University constitutional law expert Luck Beck says the bill would leave both sides at risk of ridicule and humiliation.
“It gives people a positive right to make statements of belief even if these statements would be unlawful under other discrimination law,” he said.
The flipside is that those with atheist beliefs will also be able to make anti-religious statements, Dr Beck said.
“Christians think it is about giving them special rights – but they will also be on the receiving end of some of the nasty stuff that the bill allows.”
14 million Australians said they affiliate with a religion or spiritual belief in the 2016 census, of which 86 per cent identified as Christian.
The 2017 marriage equality campaign was strongly opposed by the Australian Christian Lobby, which claimed same-sex marriage would harm religious freedom and freedom of speech.
A religious freedom review to examine these concerns was announced in the final stages of the marriage equality debate.
But Basia, who is a practicing Catholic, says those who straddle the two communities will be further marginalised by these laws.
“If you are part of a faith and openly told you will go to hell because of something you cannot change, then it is extremely difficult,” Basia said.
“But we will also have to worry about other queer people not being happy with our beliefs," they said.
“There are already people who don’t feel like they can enter queer spaces as they are wrestling with those two parts [of their identity].”
Peter Bui from Monash Student Association’s Queer Department said the laws would make it harder to bridge the gap between communities on campus.
“It wouldn’t be a safe space for anyone anymore,” he said.
While universities have refrained from public comment, Dr Beck says the draft bill could wind back the clock on campus inclusion and diversity work.
“Even if it is only a few people doing the wrong thing, the risk that students and staff might feel that they are at risk of discrimination and have no legal recourse could be quite damaging,” he said.
The Attorney-General’s Department is expected to provide an amended bill by the end of the year.