CANBERRA, Australia – Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday that he had asked officials to reconsider a new security measure that segregates Muslim women who wear face veils from other visitors to Parliament House.
The government department that runs Parliament House announced Thursday that "persons with facial coverings" would no longer be allowed in the open public galleries of the House of Representatives or the Senate. They would be directed to galleries usually reserved for noisy school children where they could sit behind sound-proof glass.
The measure has been widely criticized as a potential breach of federal anti-discrimination law that had dubious benefit to the building's security.
The controversy comes as the government attempts to assure Australia's Muslim minority that tough new counterterrorism laws and police raids on terror suspects' homes in recent weeks were directed at crime, not any particular religion.
Abbott said he had asked House Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to "rethink that decision."
"In public areas of this building, people ought to be allowed to wear what they want," Abbott told reporters.
The new restriction was signed off by Bishop, who has campaigned for a ban on Muslim head scarves in government schools, and Senate President Stephen Parry.
Bishop did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. Parry has explained that the measure ensured that anyone who interjected from the public gallery could be identified and barred from returning.
The restriction is currently having no practical effect because Parliament is in recess until Oct. 20. It came into force only a few hours before the end of the final sitting day.
Women wearing face veils are rarely seen in Parliament House and no one has been prevented from entering an open gallery.
Abbott said the restriction was an interim measure pending a report on building security from police and other security agencies. The security implications of visitors wearing full-length burqas and niqabs that cover the face would be resolved before Parliament next sits, he said.
"In a democracy such as ours, in a free and pluralist democracy, it's not the business of government to tell people what they should and shouldn't wear," he said.
Some senators accused the Parliament of sending a message that Muslim women can be treated as second-class citizens.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said the measure could breach federal anti-discrimination law because it targeted Muslim women.
It came at a time when Muslim women in Australia were enduring increased verbal abuse because of the elevated terror threat and some were too scared to leave home, she said.
"The idea that a measure like this will lead to a singling out of a particular group ... of Muslim women, I just think that not only is it unacceptable, but it's got the potential to actually divide us more than unite us," Broderick told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Security has increased at Parliament House since the government stepped up terror warning to the second-highest level on a four-tier scale last month in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group.