Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) is for-purpose organisation that represents and supports nearly 3000 members and clients who have neurological disabilities, predominantly those with spinal cord injuries (SCI) across Australia. SCIA is lending our support to Your Say Advocacy Tasmania’s position statement on the Religious Discrimination Bill with regard to Disability Rights.

SCIA is concerned the provision within the Religious Discrimination Bill permitting “statement of belief” opens the door allowing people to make openly disparaging comments about someone’s disability being a result of a sin or punishment, We have heard stories from staff members with disabilities who have been harassed by strangers telling them that their disability is a result of sins of their parents, or have been told they can he healed and made ‘normal’ again.

We know of direct experiences of members and staff having been stopped and asked to be prayed for because of their disability. These kinds of experiences reinforce a negative stereotypes and encourage a false outlook of disability that our community struggles hard to overcome on a daily basis.

FULL STATEMENT ON THE RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION BILL WITH REGARD TO DISABILITY RIGHTS

We, the undersigned organisations, are deeply concerned about the harmful impacts of the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill upon Australians with disability.

We support religious freedom as essential to a thriving democracy, but not at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others.

STATEMENTS OF BELIEF

We are very concerned that the Religious Discrimination Bill’s provision permitting “statements of belief” will override existing legal and policy protections for people with disability from humiliating, insulting, ridiculing and offensive behaviour and result in an increase in such behaviour towards people with disability.

For example, the highest proportion of complaints under section 17(1) of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits such behaviour, come from people with disability.

Some of these complaints are about statements of religious belief that demean disability as the result of sin, possession, or karma.

For example, a person with disability may be told:

  • That their disability is a “punishment from God” for their, or their parents’, sins
  • That their disability can be “healed” by prayer or by “living virtuously”
  • That they deserve to suffer from their disability for what they have done “in a previous life”

The Religious Discrimination Bill will take away this protection.

FAITH-BASED DISABILITY SUPPORT PROVIDERS

A large proportion of disability support services are faith-based. These services control the delivery of personal care, housing, community access and emergency relief of many people with disability. In many areas of Australia, it is not uncommon for all available support options to be faith-based organisations.

There is already an obvious power imbalance between the providers and recipients of these services, particularly as many organisations have limited resources and there may be few or no alternative service provider options. The work of the Disability Royal Commission to date has already highlighted the extensive abuse that people with disability are subjected to because of this power dynamic.

We are concerned the Religious Discrimination Bill will allow people with disability to be demeaned by statements of religious belief that are permitted under this Bill, creating an unsafe and harmful environment. We are also concerned that there may be instances where a person with disability is excluded or prevented from accessing services altogether because of the faith-based nature of the service or the beliefs of available support workers. 

FAITH-BASED SERVICES AND EMPLOYMENT

We are also concerned about the wide exemptions in the Religious Discrimination Bill allowing discrimination on the basis of religious belief, including specific tenets of faith, by faith-based services.

These exemptions will apply to services in areas including education, health care, employment, housing, and aged care. They apply to both service access and employment by services – two areas in which people with disability frequently experience discrimination.

The exemptions also override existing state and territory discrimination protections in employment by religious educational institutions, including schools, colleges, and universities, with the possibility they will override protections in other areas too. 

Examples of the impact this exemption for religious organisations creates include the following:  

  • A person with disability who seeks supports from a faith-based organisation, or applies for a job at such an organisation, may be asked to subscribe to a demeaning, faith-based view of disability.
  • A teacher at a faith-based school may be required to teach such a view to students with disability, such as teaching that disability is a deserved punishment for sin, a “test from God”, or other views inconsistent with the equal human rights and dignity of people with disability.

We are also concerned that allowing faith-based disability service providers to discriminate in employment on the basis of religious belief, rather than merit, will result in a reduction in the standard of care being provided to people with disability accessing those services

REGISTERING BODIES

We are concerned about the provision of the Religious Discrimination Bill restricting the capacity of professional registering bodies to regulate member conduct.

That provision will allow health practitioners, lawyers, and other professionals to make demeaning and derogatory religiously motivated statements about disability in their local community without fear of repercussions from their regulating bodies.

This will make people with disability feel unsafe in accessing important services. It will also increase the already significant barriers to speaking up that people with disability experience.

This will be exacerbated by the high regard in which professionals who are regulated by qualifying bodies are often held. Their attitudes towards marginalised groups can influence the broader community around them.

CALL TO ACTION

We believe all people with disability deserve disability support, educational, employment and health care environments that are free of prejudice, stigma, denigration, and discrimination.

The Religious Discrimination Bill will encourage prejudice, stigma, denigration, division, and discrimination against people with disability, and undermine all efforts to build and sustain an inclusive Australia.

It is counter to our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, the vision of Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031, the purpose of the Disability Royal Commission, and the principles of dignity and equity that Australian disability communities continue to fight for.

We urge you not to support the Bill in its current form.

SIGNATORIES

DANA – Disability Advocacy Network Australia

PWDA – People With Disabilities Australia

Australian Federation of Disability Organisations

FPDN – First Peoples Disability Network Australia

SCIA – Spinal Cord Injuries Australia

Advocacy for Inclusion – Incorporating People with Disabilities ACT

Action for People With Disability

Association for Children with Disability (TAS)

Barwon Disability Resource Council

Blue Knot Foundation

Darwin Legal Service

Disability Advocacy & Complaints Services of South Australia

Disability Advocacy NSW

Disability Discrimination Legal Service

Disability Rights Advocacy Service

Disability Voices Tasmania

Drummond Street Services

Gippsland Disability Advocacy

Leadership Plus

Melbourne East Disability Advocacy

PDCN – Physical Disability Council of NSW

Queensland Advocacy Inc.

Rights in Action

Rights Information and Advocacy Centre

Speak Out Advocacy

Your Say Advocacy Tasmania