Nov 26, 2021

Could aged care workers be fired for their beliefs under proposed new religious discrimination laws?

Religious discrimination laws aged care

The prime minister has introduced new religious discrimination laws into parliament, meaning that if the laws are passed, religious organisations will be allowed to give preference to the employment of people of the same faith.

In introducing the bill, Scott Morrison said the legislation, which has been significantly watered down from its original draft, will bring “clarity” and “confidence” that “Australians of faith will be protected from discrimination”.

Striking a balance between religious protection and freedom has been complex for the government, and has opened up debate about a raft of related issues. Some have even questioned if the bill is necessary at all, given there are laws prohibiting religious discrimination in every state and territory except NSW and South Australia.

But there are no standalone federal laws to protect people of religion or faith against discimination, despite the fact there is specific legislation to prohibit discrimination based on age (in the Age Discrimination Act 2004), disability (in the Disability Discrimination Act 1992) and sex (the Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

The proposed law will “fix” this situation, Morrison said, describing the bill as “sensible and balanced”.

Under the proposed law, religious organisations, such as aged care providers, will be allowed to prioritise and give preference to the employment and enrolment of people of the same faith.

For example, a Christian aged care provider will be able to have a Christian-only hiring policy.

The government’s explanatory memorandum to the laws give the example of Ali, a mathematics teacher at an Islamic school:

Ali was a Muslim who recently converted to Hinduism. The school has a policy that all teachers conform to the beliefs of Islam and do not conform to other religious beliefs. The policy is publicly available. It is on the school’s website and was given to Ali when we began working at the school.

If the school were to terminate Ali’s employment on the basis of his religious beliefs, the new law means the school’s conduct would not be unlawful.

In practice, most aged care providers do not consider religion when employing staff, particularly in the current economic environment, where there is a shortage of staff to work in aged care homes. 

But in consultations for the law, providers expressed the importance of being able to maintain religious culture through the beliefs of its staff. This proposed new law will allow providers the protection to do so.

The bill will be passed to a senate inquiry for further debate.

HelloCare contacted a number of religious aged care providers for this story, but none wished to comment.

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  1. There are already aged care providers who preferentially employ staff based on their religious beliefs or alignment with a particular religion. The selection criteria is biased towards those who identify with the religion of the organisation, and this results in the other essential elements such as skill, experience, education being of less a consideration. The outcomes are often evident in their organizational performance and compliance yet the preferential employment continues. There are also providers that demonstrate cultural bias on top of any existing religious element. I do not see the new laws protecting the religious freedoms that it espouses, but rather legitimizing and supporting biases and positive discrimination that actually already exist.

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