Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Chair of the Bishops’ Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement, has welcomed the draft federal Religious Discrimination Bill and says bipartisan support will be essential to prevent the proposed legislation from becoming reduced to a political fight.

Speaking to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, Archbishop Comensoli said that despite the Bill having undergone several changes since it was first proposed, it was good that ‘there is a bill being put forward’ that protects the rights of people of faith.

'Something is better than nothing. Certainly there are elements which are no longer going to be in the Bill which we would perhaps have liked to have in there. Nonetheless, the something that goes forward that provides a basic protection for people of faith alongside the various other areas of protections that are still important.’

It follows a joint statement issued by faith leaders in support of the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, which is being distributed to the Coalition party room today.

While religious leaders have not yet seen the Bill in its entirety, they said that protections against religious discrimination at a federal level are long overdue.

‘Based on what we have been informed will be the contents of the Bill, we welcome this Bill because it will protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs, and will allow faith-based organisations to act in accordance with their doctrines, tenets and beliefs without this being disallowed as religious discrimination.’

One of the proposed inclusions to the Bill by the Catholic Church was a conscientious objection provision that would have allowed healthcare providers to refuse treatment that conflicted with their beliefs. Archbishop Comensoli said that while some issues were covered by the law, others were not, including protection from the voluntary euthanasia laws now in place in various states.

‘I think the various voluntary euthanasia laws that have come in show there is a need for providing these sort of protections, both for individuals and for institutions.’

It is believed that the draft Bill retains the right of religious schools to hire people of the same faith background. Archbishop Comensoli said that like any other organisation, religious groups should be allowed to hire people who align with their stated mission.

If people wish to be employed in a particular organisation, then they follow the mission of that particular organisation. We would be seeing that as important.’

‘Within matters relating to conduct someone's conduct, such that they are completely contrary to the mission of the organisation, just as would be in the case of any organisation – no matter what the issue was – if they're against that organisation's mission, the organisation should be free to act accordingly.’

Religious leaders are hoping the Bill will gain bipartisan support, and say there is no reason ‘for it to generate a deeply polarising debate over religion.’

Archbishop Comensoli said he believes there is ‘significant openness’ towards bipartisan support. ‘Obviously, everyone's wanting to know what the details are in the Bill itself ... but my sense is that both sides of politics want to do this. It would be better if it's bipartisan, so that we can stop the "ping-ponging" that happens on bits of legislation when it becomes reduced to a political fight.’

While it is not yet clear if it will, the Archbishop said it would be problematic if the Bill did not override state and territory legislation, given the difficulties that can arise when ‘in one state you're treated one way, and in another state treated entirely differently’.

So the sense of moving towards something that might be consistent across the country, in terms of religious freedom and in terms of the other freedoms that are important – whether they be racial or employment or sexual or whatever – there is a value in having something that's consistent across the country.’

Last week, Executive Director of the National Catholic Education Commission, Jacinta Collins, called for the legislation to be finalised ‘as quickly as possible’, so that the ability of religious schools to set their own ethos would be protected against state legislation, which in Victoria includes the proposed reforms to the state’s equal opportunity laws.

She said that both federal major parties had already indicated that religious schools, and the parents of students in these schools, were ‘entitled to require employees to act in their roles in ways that uphold the ethos and values of that faith’, and that this requirement would be taken into account ‘when a person is first employed and in the course of their employment’.

Religious leaders have said they support a periodic review of any human rights legislation and will monitor the effect of any legislation enacted, and ‘will readily co-operate with the government in any review process to optimise the benefits of the legislation for all Australians’.