At least one Coalition member will cross the floor in protest as the federal opposition doubles down to protect the right of church-run care providers to deny beds to elderly homosexual, transgender and intersex people – a right religious providers say they don’t even want.

Senator Sue Boyce, speaking on amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBTI people from unfair discrimination, said religious organisations can’t have it both ways; claiming to not discriminate yet keeping the right to do so in taxpayer-funded aged care services:

“Why should we allow aged-care institutions that are funded by the federal government to decide who the residents of those aged-care facilities will be based on the sexual orientation or the sexual status of the people involved? I do not think it is reasonable for that to be the right of the organisations.”

Religious aged-care providers contacted by Crikey yesterday — including Catholic Health Australia, Anglicare Australia, UnitingCare Australia and Mission Australia — agree with Boyce. They overwhelmingly support the removal of the exemption.

WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is gay, will abstain. The remainder of the Coalition will vote against reforms as a whole if religious exemptions in public-funded aged care were removed, shadow attorney-general George Brandis told the Senate last night.

Despairing that a bipartisan agreement to pass the first federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTI people has been undone by the religious aged care amendment, Brandis accused Labor of betraying the gay community through a “deliberate and cynical act” with their tactics.

However, Crikey understands the Coalition decision was a rushed response to appear united after Senator Gary Humphries unilaterally took up the issue in his committee minority report on the bill. Humphries cited submissions from the Australian Christian Lobby and the Catholic’s Women’s League Australia — both ideological lobby groups and not aged care providers — and mischaracterised the view of Catholic Health Australia, which has said it does not oppose exemption removal.

Last week, the reform had bipartisan support after months of negotiations between Brandis, church-owned providers and human rights advocates.

UnitingCare Australia national director Lin Hatfield-Dodds says the Uniting Church is “strongly supportive” of the reforms and the removal of the religious exemption. “It’s about the dignity of every person in need. We respect and celebrate everybody in our care,” she said.

Mission Australia CEO Toby Hall says its services are offered “without judgement”, regardless of belief, background or sexual orientation. “We do not consider such an exemption should apply to the provision of goods and services such as residential aged care, which may otherwise be used to discriminate … in the provision of these services,” he said.

Anglicare Australia cited its mission of dignity, respect and care in its support of the reforms, and Catholic Health Australia also questioned the need for the exemptions. CHA’s CEO Martin Laverty says the very existence of the exemption would come as a surprise to many Catholic health sector workers.

Laverty, writing in CHA’s Health Matters, identified scope for further reform:

“Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby has asked why the legislation can’t be expanded beyond its current remit to also require religious schools and hospitals to lose their right to discriminate in who they provide services to. Justice Kirby’s question about hospitals is a good one. Catholic hospitals don’t discriminate in either employment practice or service delivery, so why is the current exemption still necessary?”

Abbott’s office responded to questions by pointing to Brandis’ speech last night.

Peter Fray

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