“Permitting people to suffer religious discrimination in their employment simply because their opinions about religion, expressed out of hours, would cause a large employer unjustifiable financial hardship, seems alien to Australia’s tradition of a fair go,” co-chief executive Peter Wertheim said in the submission.
Mr Wertheim also questioned why the personal freedom of employees to express their religious beliefs should depend on the financial size of their employer or the potential financial consequences for the company they worked for.
He noted that “unjustifiable financial hardship” was not defined in the bill. “Both the unjustifiable financial hardship exception for large employers and the limitation of the provisions of [the Folau clause] to large employers should therefore be reconsidered,” he said.
Mr Porter has been consulting with religious and community groups on the draft laws, which in broad terms seek to make it unlawful to discriminate against Australians on the basis of their religion. Public submissions on the bill close next Wednesday.
On Friday, Mr Porter said the government would “respond substantively after all submissions have been received and considered”.
But he added: “It is worth noting that the requirement placed on business with an annual turnover above $50 million is an additional requirement to that which applies to all employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religion, just as other anti-discrimination laws prevent employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sex, race, age and disability.”
He also said the proposed bill “does not prevent any employer from imposing reasonable conditions on their employees”.
The Folau provision has already attracted concerns from other religious and community groups. Anglican Bishop Dr Michael Stead has warned it could act as a “gag” on devout employees, while Equality Australia says the provision will undermine employers’ ability to foster inclusive workplace cultures.
Labor MPs, including NSW senator Deborah O’Neill, have also criticised the $50 million threshold as “arbitrary”.
The Folau clause would apply only to a small proportion of Australian businesses. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 93 per cent of businesses have turnover below $2 million a year.
Mr Porter is due to introduce the bill to Parliament in October, with a vote expected by Christmas.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House