By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday promised stiffer legislation against religious discrimination, and a new commissioner to act as a watchdog on freedom of religion issues.
Morrison said his conservative government would introduce a Religious Discrimination Act next year to provide more protections than existing state laws.
“Australia is a place where discrimination on the basis of a person’s identity — including their religious identity — is unacceptable,” his office said in a statement.
“It is also a place where we respect the right of religious institutions to maintain their distinctive religious ethos. Our laws should reflect these values.“Morrison, an evangelical Christian, angered some religious groups last month when he supported removing rules that allow schools to expel gay students on religious grounds.
The government will now refer the matter to an inquiry led by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which is set to report next year.
The delay could help Morrison with conservative voters less than six months away from the next federal election, at which, opinion polls show, his government is on course for a landslide defeat.
Thursday’s announcement was in response to a review of religious freedoms in Australia led by former Liberal politician Philip Ruddock.
Conservative groups in Australia have highlighted religious freedom cases in the United States and Britain in their arguments for more protection of religious beliefs.
They point to the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled the baker did not breach anti-discrimination laws.
Legal scholars said Morrison’s government could include similar provisions in the text of its proposed religious discrimination law.
“Morrison could include exemptions to offer people of faith the ability to deny services because it contravenes their religion. The devil will be in the detail,” said Luke Beck, a constitutional law professor at Monash University.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Darren Schuettler)