Robbing Peter To Pay Paul: Religious Discrimination Bill Will Choke The Rights Of People With Disability

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There’s a lot of reasons why the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is bad, and its effects on people with disability is chief among those reasons. Fiona Strahan explains.

In principle, a Religious Discrimination Bill is a great idea. No-one should face discrimination because of their faith, and I’m proud the Anti-Discrimination Act in my home state of Tasmania has some of the strongest provisions against religious discrimination in the nation.

However, such protections should not be enacted at the expense of other human rights.

This is exactly what will happen to people with disability if the proposed override of a vital part of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act by the federal Religious Discrimination Bill is allowed to take place.

Our protection from humiliating, intimidating, insulting and ridiculing language will be taken away when such language is spoken in the name of religion.

Let me tell you about my experiences and those of my disabled tribe to help you better understand the risks the federal override poses to Tasmanians with disability.

As a short-statured woman I have received all kinds of harassment, ridicule and intimidation. When I get together with my other disabled people, I find my experiences are not unique.

Among the patterns of humiliation we all experience, one is that we are singled out under the guise of religious belief.

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When I was a young person, just beginning to realise other people had a problem with my stature, I was told that God had made me “special”.

I asked myself, if I have been made special why am I treated with stares, finger pointing and horrible words?

Then I was told by others I’d clearly done something wrong and that short-stature was my punishment.

I decided early on that God can’t have it both ways.

The interconnection of religion and disability is complex and contradictory. We are “special” and we are its opposite.

“Special” separates us and makes us more isolated and vulnerable to unwanted attention, abuse and exclusion. Its opposite is flat out humiliating, nasty, cruel and shame-making.

Regardless of whether prejudice dons a cruel face or a well-meaning one, the intent is always the same and the results are always exhausting and destructive.

Here’s some more examples, from disabled friends I have talked to over the past few weeks, about the types of religious beliefs about disability that are put upon us without consent.

A friend who uses a wheelchair was surrounded by people who begin to pray for him to walk again – the assumption was that he once did.

A woman friend was told by someone in her workplace that her disability has been given to her because there is something she needs to learn in this life.

A short statured woman had people pray for her to grow.

An autistic friend was told, as a child, that Satan might use her to tempt others into being sinful and wilful.

Whether it’s “a mark of sin”, “demonic possession” or “karma”, disability is still too often framed as a religious failing rather than just a part of life.

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act is critical to the well-being of people with disability because it prohibits precisely the stigmatising language we regularly face.

It’s not a coincidence that the highest proportion of complaints under the relevant section of the Anti-Discrimination Act (section 17) – the section the federal government wants to override – are from people with disability.

At times these complaints have outnumbered those made on the basis of sex and race combined.

The critics of section 17 say terms like “humiliating” and “intimidating” are subjective and too wide. But, in fact, there are strict legal tests and limits that apply to section 17: a reasonable person must have anticipated that the victim would be humiliated or intimidated, and the law doesn’t apply if the act was done in good faith in the public interest.

Critics also claim section 17 allows serial litigants to drag people before the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. This ignores the fact that most complaints are resolved in conciliation.

Two landmark cases under section 17 were from disability advocate, Judy Huett. One was against Prue MacSween for her derogatory comments about children with disability “holding back” other children. The other was against the Daily Telegraph for its implications that people with disability are lazy.

Both cases were resolved in conciliation, to the satisfaction of all parties.

Far from being a stage for the litigious, section 17 is a tool that allows the marginalised to sit down with the powerful and work out their differences.

The religious freedom debate is thought of as being about God vs LGBTIQ people. I stand in solidarity with LGBTIQ people, Indigenous people, women, and racial minorities, who have too often suffered hateful and harmful speech, often in the name of religion.

Collectively our histories include institutionalisation, experimentation, poverty, and unwanted medical interventions, again, often in God’s name. But, based on statistics alone, it is people with disability who have the most to lose from the license to hate and discriminate contained in the Religious Discrimination Bill.

I don’t want any person with a disability to be on the receiving end of religious beliefs that cause them offence, humiliation, shame or fear.

I don’t want another person to take their life because of the relentless abuse and cruelty that is too often perpetrated in the name of God’s love.

This is what is at stake if this bill is passed.

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act is the best in the country and is working well. Rather than watering it down, the rest of Australia should adopt it as a model.

It’s time for all minorities adversely impacted by discrimination to stand up for the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, to stand up for the cohesive and equal society anti-discrimination legislation promises, and to stand against the deeply discriminatory Religious Discrimination Bill.

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Fiona Strahan

Fiona Strahan is a Tasmanian disability advocate.

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