LGBTIQ advocates have said the Coalition’s proposed amendments to protect LGBT students from discrimination in religious schools could make things worse, as action on the issue is delayed until the new year due to political deadlock.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a conscience vote on Wednesday – the second last sitting day of parliament for the year – on government amendments after the Coalition and Labor failed to reach an agreement on how to change the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students, despite both parties supporting the move.
The government’s amendments would “completely remove the ability to discriminate against students based on gender or sexual orientation or relationship status or pregnancy” and insert a clarification that “nothing in the act prevents a religious school teaching in accordance with their own religious beliefs.”
The amendment states “teaching activity” will not be unlawful if it “in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” and “is done by, or with the authority of, an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with those doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings”.
The changes would also require the Human Rights Commission to consider the best interests of the student and the religious nature of the school when determining whether a rule was reasonable.
“[The government’s legislation] actually does what I think Australians would expect us to do – look after kids for who they are but also ensure that, in this country, religious freedom still means something,” Morrison said on Wednesday.
“All religions have their teachings, based on their religious texts, and they should be able to teach those texts in accordance with established religion.”
‘Deeply flawed and should be voted down’
But just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome said the “deeply flawed” amendments had been rushed and could make things worse.
“The legislation announced today allows discrimination to continue against LGBTI students, and potentially broadens it out to other students,” he said.
“The ‘teaching activity’ provision in the legislation applies to all attributes covered in the Act. It excuses direct and indirect discrimination. Indeed, it is so broad it is hard to see what wouldn’t be allowed.
“This bill is deeply flawed and should be voted down by all MPs who want faith-based schools to be safe and productive learning environments.
“Tasmania banned anti-LGBTI discrimination in faith-based schools twenty years ago without the sky falling in, and I urge all sides of federal politics to adopt the Tasmanian model.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten ruled out offering his MPs a conscience vote on the changes on Monday, and said negotiations should continue into the new year.
Shorten said Labor had received legal advice that the government’s proposed changes would “replace one form of discrimination with another”.
“Our legal advice about the government’s proposed amendment is that it has the potential to permit both direct and indirect discrimination against students in schools,” he said.
“The advice goes on to say that the provisions which we seek to put in would not prevent the provision of instruction in an educational institution.”
He continued, “I get that all sides of politics want to remove discrimination from the law books. I also understand religious faith being taught in schools. I don’t see the two goals as being irreconcilable.
“However, while they’re trying to remove discrimination against children, I don’t think that the parliament has come across a mechanism that sufficiently reassures the ability to teach faith without actually reintroducing the same discrimination sought to be removed in a new form.”
Attorney-General Christian Porter said under the government’s proposal, any action against a school would be decided after consideration of the reasonableness of the rule in the context of the institution’s religion and whether there was regard for the best interests of the student.
“Labor [says] it agrees with the government that faith-based schools should be able to educate students consistent with their beliefs and the tenets of their religion,” he said.
“But Labor is not prepared to accept the common sense principle that religious schools should be able to impose reasonable school rules evenly on all of their students, such as a requirement that all students – regardless of gender – attend chapel. These rules are no different to those imposed in many workplaces.”
Labor Senator Penny Wong said the government’s proposal would “destroy the intent of the bill, to remove discrimination against LGBT students.”
“Worse still, the advice is it would worsen discrimination against LGBT students, allowing positive discrimination by staff. Even allowing teachers to refuse to teach LGBT students,” she told the Senate.
Greens Senator Janet Rice also blasted the Coalition’s proposal as a “Trojan horse that will expand discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, not remove it.”
“Discrimination has no place in schools. Full stop. No ifs. No buts,” she said.
‘Censorship of religious teaching’
A letter sent to Labor and crossbench MPs signed by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, Presbyterian Church of Australia moderator-general John Wilson, Christian Schools Australia and the Australian Association of Christian Schools said Labor’s proposed bill on the issue was an “extraordinary and unprecedented incursion on religious freedom,” The Australian reported.
“In the amendment to s37 of the Sex Discrimination Act proposed by Labor, anti-discrimination law would extend beyond the schoolyard and into churches, synagogues, mosques and temples nationwide wherever their actions are ‘connected with the provision … of education’, censoring doctrines that are thousands of years in the making,” the letter read.
“In removing the exception to discrimination law in s38(3) of the Act without providing any balancing measures for faith-based educational institutions (including tertiary institutions), the Bill would allow the threat of discrimination claims to censor religious teaching.”
But Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek said the “vast majority” of religious schools had made it clear to them that “they don’t want to discriminate against children in their schools” and defended Labor’s bill on the issue, which the government blocked from a vote in the Senate earlier in the week.
“[The school administrators have made it clear they] are happy for this change to proceed. They don’t want to use the exemptions from the Sex Discrimination Act,” Plibersek said.
“Nothing in our bill prevents religious schools from teaching the tenants of their faith, from teaching religious instruction in our schools. There is nothing in our bill that prevents that.
“There is a very nasty scare campaign being run by the right wing of the Liberal party saying that [our bill] somehow undermines religious freedoms, when it doesn’t.”