Earlier this week, adjacent to the Australian Senate chamber, the Burnett Institute marked the 30th anniversary of the discovery of HIV. It was a timely reminder of how far we had come in combating the fears and bigotry attached to the disease. A little while later, in the Senate itself, a new law was passed to combat discrimination against ageing lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.
While many disagree about the speed at which Australia has addressed discrimination based on sexual orientation, the passage of the sex discrimination amendment (sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status) bill 2013 marks an important milestone because the primary principle of the bill – which is to widen anti-discrimination laws – enjoyed the support of the Coalition, Labor, the Australian Greens and Independents.
However, debate on the bill provided the Senate with a rare moment to deliberate on the proper balance between protecting religious freedom on one hand, while at the same time combating the scourge of discrimination.
Understanding the pain of discrimination while wanting to protect religious freedom of expression was eloquently voiced by a Liberal colleague who said “it is not very easy for us to put ourselves in the shoes of a person who finds themselves in that sort of situation, but one of the obligations of a parliament, of us as representatives of the people, is to try and understand the challenges and dilemmas faced by people in those situations”.
Significantly, the bill passed by the Senate – and if agreed, by the House of Representatives – will restrict the ability of faith-based organisations to discriminate against persons based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status when providing taxpayer-funded aged care services.
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