The Coalition has radically revised its proposed religious discrimination bill, scrapping the so-called Folau clause and removing the ability for health providers to refuse treatment on the basis of “conscientious objection”.
The revised bill – which has been signed off by cabinet and was briefed to government MPs on Monday – still includes a controversial “statement of belief” clause which would override other commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.
It is also understood to retain a clause that allows faith-based institutions, such as religious schools, to positively discriminate against people who do not share their faith, something the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said is necessary to maintain their “distinctive faith-based ethos”.
Guardian Australia understands the attorney general, Michaelia Cash, has briefed MPs on the proposed changes to the bill, agreeing to drop the divisive Folau clause, which would have protected employers from claims of indirect discrimination if they sanctioned employees for misconduct for expressing religious beliefs.
However, a similar clause relating to professional or qualifying bodies remains in the bill, which would protect someone from being disqualified based on their religious expression.
The moderate MP Katie Allen and conservative MP George Christensen both told Cash at the meeting they reserved their right to cross the floor on the legislation, with Allen concerned it could still enable discrimination, and Christensen concerned it did not go far enough.
Other moderate MPs, including Warren Entsch and Trent Zimmerman, are also understood to be reserving their right to cross the floor.
The legislation is expected to go to a full meeting of the Coalition party room next Tuesday before it is introduced into parliament.
Entsch said he had not yet seen the revised legislation but was confident Cash had made “significant changes”.
“I am sure there is still going to be some criticism on both sides, but I know she has done some very good work there in making some significant changes,” Entsch said. He said the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” and he would wait to see the legislation before deciding his position.
The Australian Christian Lobby had been pushing for the inclusion of the Folau clause for employers, which refers to the controversial sacking of rugby player Israel Folau after he wrote on social media that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters”.
Christian groups have also been agitating for faith-based institutions to be able to discriminate against someone based on their religious beliefs, with schools wanting the ability to have a hiring preference without falling foul of anti-discrimination laws.
The ability of the new “statement of belief” clause to override state anti-discrimination laws has angered equality advocates, particularly in Tasmania where laws prevent speech that offends, insults or humiliates people based on protected characteristics.
In September 2019, the Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie said she saw no case for the Coalition’s bill as Tasmanians already enjoyed religious freedom and did not want their discrimination laws changed.
In October this year, the Australian Christian Lobby’s managing director, Martyn Iles, said the bill would contain “a Folau clause” that was “not perfect but it’s not bad”, signalling the ACL would reluctantly support it because “it does make a few key offerings that make a difference in this country”.
Labor has reserved its position on the religious discrimination legislation until it sees a final version of the bill. Chris Bowen, a senior right faction frontbencher, criticised an earlier version of the bill as “friendless” in November 2019.
Since then the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has said only that he doesn’t support discrimination based on religion but won’t support measures that “increase discrimination in other areas”.
On Tuesday, the National Catholic Education Commission, headed by the former Labor senator Jacinta Collins, called for the federal legislation to be finalised “as quickly as possible” to ensure religious schools’ ability to set their own ethos was protected against state legislation, including proposed reforms to Victoria’s equal opportunity laws.
Collins said “both federal major parties have indicated that religious schools, and parents of students, are entitled to require employees to act in their roles in ways that uphold the ethos and values of that faith, and that this requirement may be taken into account when a person is first employed and in the course of their employment”.