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Australia unveils religious freedom bill, after rugby star sacked for 'hell awaits homosexuals' post

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By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia on Thursday proposed legislation to protect people who express their religious faith outside of the workplace, a few months after Rugby Union international Israel Folau was sacked for posting on social media that hell awaited “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers”.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said the proposal would allow Australians to express their religious beliefs away from the workplace as long as it did not cause financial damage to their employer.

Porter said the legislation was needed as the country’s anti-discrimination laws do not go far enough.

“Australia has a strong anti-discrimination framework with specific protections for people against discrimination on the basis of their age, sex, race and disability,” Porter said in a speech in Sydney.

“This draft bill released today extends those protections to provide protection for people against discrimination on the basis of their religion or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

Folau’s social media posting and subsequent sacking by Rugby Australia triggered a nationwide, and at times heated, debate about freedom of speech and religion.

Folau, a devote Christian, has begun an unfair dismissal case against Rugby Australia and the New South Wales Waratahs club, which will head to trial in February, 2020 if no settlement is reached beforehand.

The religious freedom legislation is expected to be introduced into parliament in October, Porter said.

But some faith groups wanted the legislation to go further.

The legislation does not address whether religious schools have the freedom to hire and fire staff based on marital status, sexual orientation, and other factors.

Religious schools currently use exemptions from anti-discrimination laws to hire the staff they want, but there is the possibility those exemptions could be challenged unless such a right is enshrined.

“The situation is seen as urgent by many and it has been deferred,” said Michael Kellahan, executive director, Freedom for Faith, a Christian legal think-tank.

“It would have been nice to have some leadership on this.”

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry)

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