Tony Abbott’s “in-principle” agreement to consider national anti-discrimination laws for gay and lesbian people — as Crikey reported yesterday — creates a new political fault line for Kevin Rudd.

Most Australians would be surprised to learn that we don’t already have national anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sexuality. In this sense we are well behind most other developed nations. It’s shameful that federal Labor has allowed this to happen and that they with the Liberals repeatedly blocked my attempts — and the attempts of the late Senator Sid Spindler — to remedy this through private members’ bills.

In Australia, we have national laws against discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, religious belief, age and disability — but nothing for sexual orientation. All states and territories have local anti-discrimination laws for sexuality, but these are futile at addressing Commonwealth-based discrimination.

Astonishingly, there are no comprehensive, effective, legislative protections for Commonwealth employees when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity and it’s the same for those who receive Commonwealth services. For example, despite federal reforms to recognise same-sex couples six months ago, if a Centrelink employee or customer was discriminated against because of their sexuality there is nothing they can do about it.

It would have made perfect sense for Rudd Labor to have included this long-overdue reform as part of its recent overhaul of 100 federal laws to recognize same-s-x couples, but the ALP has a glacial “one-reform-per-term” attitude on gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gender (commonly, GLBT) issues.

The reason behind this timidity is the religious Right. Reactionary Christians, conservative Catholics and evangelical fundamentalists think this discrimination is okay. They want to discriminate. It’s their right! As a consequence, they demand (and have largely won) sweeping concessions within state legislation to exempt them from anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of sexuality. Under most state laws, a person or organisation simply needs to claim ‘religious belief’ to receive their get-out-of-jail-free card, immune from prosecution no matter how egregious the offence to the gay person.

Federal Labor promised to bring about this reform in their second term if re-elected. In Opposition, then shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon released a draft copy of a proposed bill to the gay community prior to the last election, and seemed genuinely shocked at the hostile response it received from the very community she was trying to win over. The bill was peppered with religious exemptions to the point where it was rendered useless. Labor is out of step with both the wider electorate and the GLBT community of this issue.

Everyone else has moved on. In fact, a Galaxy poll from last year showed 85% support for national laws to protect people on the basis of s-xuality and gender identity.

At issue is the reality that so many social services once administered by the federal government are now laundered through church groups. Employment services, accommodation, education and hospitals are now federally-funded but religiously outsourced.

Should the Salvation Army be allowed to refuse service to a gay man looking for a job at Employment Plus? Should a church school have the right to sack its lesbian accountant? Should Mission Australia have the right to refuse emergency accommodation to a same-sex couple? Should a religious school have the right to expel a gay student, or refuse him access to the school ball if he brings a male partner? Should a Catholic hospital have the right to deny work to a lesbian psychologist?

As it stands, these dreadful things can and are happening and federal Labor allows it.

In stark contrast, the anti-discrimination laws in Tasmania, where the most recent such Act has been adopted, contains no religious exemptions whatsoever. Victoria recently tinkered with its anti-discrimination laws to tighten the escape clause around religious exemptions, but it’s not ideal. And last year in the UK, the British Labour Party adopted national anti-discrimination laws with no religious exemptions, a move supported by the Anglican Church.

With both Rudd and Abbott now on record as broadly supporting such laws, this issue is no longer about whether or not it should occur, but whether or not it should contain religious exemptions. This is where Rudd can differ from Abbott and offer a better model. The Australian Christian Lobby will be shrill with condemnation, but they have already turned on Rudd over gay civil ceremonies in the ACT and are corralling supporters behind Abbott. Rudd has nothing to lose.

While most states and territories contain a range of religious exemptions in their local laws, this isn’t a good thing and shouldn’t be perpetuated. According to anti-discrimination expert and ANU law lecturer Wayne Morgan:

“Religious exemptions have increased over the last decade and become more extensive in their scope, particularly the shift in protection from ‘religious institutions’ to ‘religious belief’. Religious organisations remain one of the most homophobic in society. We would not tolerate them having exemptions on the grounds of race or disability, so why let them get away with it for sexuality? This is only happening because politicians have allowed religious lobby groups to redefine this area of law as a moral and not a civil issue.”

It’s time for the Commonwealth to lift the bar, provide effective coverage to GLBT people and to put human rights above religious bigotry.