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Catholics and Muslims have raised the alarm about the potential for Labor’s new online misinformation laws to restrain the teaching of religious doctrine on issues such as euthanasia.

The powerful Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is pushing to make sure a person expressing sincere religious beliefs cannot be captured under a draft bill that has been criticised by the Coalition, human rights commission, civil liberties groups and top legal minds.

Melbourne’s Catholic archbishop, Peter Comensoli.Credit: Joe Armao

Peter Comensoli – the Melbourne archbishop and chair of the Bishops Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement – claims the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combating Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill defines “harmful” mis- and disinformation so vaguely that it could capture a wide range of communications.

“Is it somehow harmful to say euthanasia is not medical care? Many people out there now say VAD [voluntary assisted dying] is a kind of medical care,” he said in an interview. “I would argue it is not. Am I somehow doing harm by saying that?”

Progressive group Catholics for Renewal believes the bill would outlaw the teaching of Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, which holds that LGBTQ people have a “disorder”. The group supports this prohibition and is suggesting any religious exemptions be accompanied by a requirement to acknowledge modern science alongside doctrine.

In the bishops’ conference’s written submission to the government, which has not yet been published by the government, Comensoli said many religious services were streamed online and could be tied up in the bill, which has yet to be introduced to parliament and seeks to address social harm caused by misleading and false information on social platforms.

“There are people who will sometimes incorrectly claim that the teachings of the Catholic Church are ‘hateful’ or ‘harmful’. The conference is concerned that the bill could be used to portray the church’s communication of its teachings as a form of public misinformation,” the Catholic submission states.

“As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia is party to an international agreement to ensure that its people are free to manifest their ‘religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.

“This is universally accepted to indicate that communicating sincerely held religious beliefs is an important contribution to the common good that should be safeguarded when drafting legislation.”

Kamalle Dabboussy, of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said his organisation had not settled on a formal position on the bill but cited “concern that the debate around this and similar legislation may curtail freedom of religious expression”.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“Every family needs to maintain their own cultural, linguistic and religious heritage. With due diligence the government can heed these concerns,” he said.

The law, proposed by Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, would give the Australian Communications and Media Authority power to fine social media giants millions of dollars for misinformation and content it deems harmful.

Responsibility for censoring claims will lie with platforms such as TikTok and Meta, but public law expert Professor Anne Twomey, who last month labelled the bill a “fiasco”, has said the Communications and Media Authority would, at an underlying level, be the determinant of misinformation due to its enforcement role.

“We do also need to be very cautious that the cure does not end up being worse than the disease,” she said last month. “There is a serious risk in combating misinformation and disinformation, we seriously undermine freedom of speech, which is a pillar of that system of democracy we are trying to defend.”

Professor Anne Twomey recently labelled the bill a “fiasco”.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Concerns about the bill have been raised by a wide range of civil society groups. They centre on freedom of expression, broad definitions of misinformation, and sections that mean professional news organisations, governments and academics cannot be accused of misinformation.

Independent MP Zoe Daniel, a former journalist, said it was important to clamp down on false online information and slammed the Coalition for what she said was its fearmongering over the bill. However, she said the draft bill included definitions that may be too vague.

“This is an uncomfortable but necessary conversation, and any legislation must be carefully calibrated to help rebuild, not further erode, public trust. I say: don’t bin the bill; fix the bill,” she said in parliament on Monday.

Rowland’s spokesman said the government was conducting a public consultation on whether the bill struck the right balance between blocking harmful content and protecting freedom of speech.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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