Religious freedom push must be matched with hate speech protection, LGBTQI advocates say

A government push to prevent “indirect” religious discrimination needs to be matched with new federal protections against hate speech and vilification, LGBTQI advocacy group Equality Australia says.

The attorney general, Christian Porter, has begun a series of workshops with MPs on the government’s proposed religious discrimination bill, which is due to be introduced to parliament sometime this year.

But amid calls from conservative MPs for a religious freedom bill rather than just a “defensive” bill that protects against discrimination, LGBTQI advocates are warning of “panic” among minority groups of the potential for the bill to do harm.

Equality Australia’s director of legal advocacy, Lee Carnie, also raised concern that proposed new laws could override existing state legislation aimed at protecting minority groups against vilification.

“If you have those two concurrent processes going [at a state and federal level] you could potentially have both jurisdictions finding there had been mistreatment or neither, but because there isn’t consistency … they could reach different conclusions on where the line should be drawn,” Carnie told Guardian Australia.

“The answer to dealing with that national inconsistency that would arise if the Australian government passes indirect discrimination provisions is to also make sure that amendments to the sex discrimination act are passed that protect LBTQI+ people from vilification and hate speech.”

Carnie said that the remedy would be to introduce protections similar to the contentious Section 18C that exists within the Racial Discrimination Act, which the government unsuccessfully attempted to water down in the previous parliament.

Equality Australia is calling on the government to release the bill, saying the attorney general’s proposed measure to legislate against “indirect” discrimination could prevent employers providing a safe workplace for all people.

“Anti-discrimination laws should be a shield, not a sword. It sounds like the government’s proposal would prevent employers from being able to protect their businesses from the damaging public actions of employees.”

The Nationals MP, Barnaby Joyce, told Guardian Australia that he wanted the government’s legislation to ensure that someone’s religious views should only be considered by an employer if they were relevant to the job.

He accused Rugby Australia of opening a “can of worms” after it sacked its star player Israel Folau for widely condemned comments on social media in which he paraphrased a Bible passage saying “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” would go to hell unless they repented.

“If you want to blame someone for this, blame Rugby Australia – they opened the can of worms and now the worms are all over the place and somehow we have to stick the worms back in the can,” he said.

“Rugby Australia saying that someone may take offence about another person’s view on who goes to heaven or hell would say that they … know there is a heaven and hell and they have got knowledge of how to get to heaven or hell, and I would have thought that would be a little outside their pay grade.”

Earlier he told ABC radio that he believed companies could not sack someone for their “annoying” views.

“You’ve got people who are a pain in the arse and they’re in every office, but we can’t just go around sacking them because they’re annoying,” he said.

Joyce is one of a group of conservative MPs who say the government needs to do more to protect religious expression, along with the New South Wales senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who has launched a petition calling for a religious freedom bill.

Porter has said he is opposed to such “declaratory” rights bills.

Conservative thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs is also critical of the federal government’s attempt to legislate to protect religious freedoms, saying no new legislation is warranted.

“The government should not legislate for the Folau case. Bad laws cannot be fixed by imposing more bad laws. It is not ‘conservative’ to legislate for freedom,” the IPA executive director, John Roskam, said.

Labor has said it is prepared to work with the government on a religious discrimination bill, welcoming comments from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, that the issue should not be “politicised”.