‘Unfair’ Exemptions Must Go, LGBTIQ Advocates Say


Anna Brown, Magda Szubanski and Lee Carnie talk about gay students at religious schools

A group of LGBTIQ advocates has called for the removal of “unfair” exemptions allowing discrimination against gay students at religious schools.

On Friday, the Sydney Morning Herald published all 20 recommendations from the yet-to-be-released Ruddock religious freedom review’s report.

The report recommends continuing to allow religious schools to discriminate against students based on sexual orientation, gender or relationship status under the federal Sex Discrimination Act.

But it recommends narrowing this exemption for religious schools under federal law, by requiring schools to prove the discrimination is founded on religious precepts, ensuring any discriminatory policy is made publicly available and the best interests of the child are the primary consideration.

Anna Brown, co-chair of the Equality Campaign and the Human Rights Law Centre’s director of legal advocacy, said Australians voted for “fairness and equality” in last year’s postal survey and the Australian public wants students protected.

“The debate this week shows that our views have changed since these religious exemptions were enshrined in law,” she said.

“The idea that taxpayer funded religious schools should be able to expel a student who comes out is completely out of step with modern community expectations. It’s discriminatory and it’s just wrong.”

She said while the report did recognise the current broad religious exemptions allowing schools and organisations to discriminate against LGBTIQ people are unfair, narrowing the criteria to discriminate is “not enough”.

“These unfair laws must go,” said Ms Brown.

Queensland Anglican priest Reverend Dr Jo Inkpin, who is transgender, said mainstream churches had moved forward since the “gruelling” marriage equality debate last year.

“We have great diversity that we should celebrate in this country, and churches need to be part of that,” she said.

“In our church, the Anglican Diocese in Queensland, our schools have been welcoming to LGBTI children.

“We’re working towards guidelines which will actually provide extra care and support for them, not going backwards into the past.”

Rev Inkpin said she and other members of Equal Voices, the peak body of LGBTIQ Christians and allies, had spoken out against discrimination.

“Churches should not be funded to discriminate but to return to our basic values of justice and dignity for everyone,” she said.

She said religious freedom “shouldn’t be about power and privilege” but “serving and loving others.”

“Churches should have the right to their own internal affairs,” she said.

“But when they’re caring for other people in the wider community, we should respect the values of others and work with others in ways that enrich everyone.”

Marriage equality campaigner Magda Szubanski said young people are extremely vulnerable, and the suicide rates among LGBTIQ people are very high.

“We have to find a way to go forward together with carers in the faith communities,” she said.

“There are many people within those faith communities who have found a way to open their hearts and be inclusive.”

‘Schools don’t use the laws’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this week the government was not proposing changes to the “existing arrangement” but said on Thursday he was “not comfortable” with students being expelled for their sexuality.

“I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group,” he told Sky News.

“We do not think that children should be discriminated against.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said there is “no case to discriminate against any kid based on sexuality.”

“Those laws are out of date, if they were ever in date,” he said, adding school administrators he had spoken to told him “they don’t even use the existing laws.”

“If Mr Morrison wants to back up his statement, I will work with him to make sure that no child is denied human dignity,” he said.

The Greens on Thursday said they would introduce an amendment bill to parliament that would scrap the laws.

The law in question is Section 38 of the federal Sex Discrimination Act, which currently gives religious schools an exemption on sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status when the discrimination is “in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

Queensland law already protects students at religious schools from discrimination based on sexuality, while Tasmanian law protects both students and staff.

LGBTIQ advocates are concerned that the review’s recommended changes at the federal level would invalidate those state laws.

‘Human Rights Act is needed’

Meanwhile, the religious freedom review’s report also recommends a religious discrimination act to protect people of faith from discrimination.

Currently, people of faith are protected from discrimination in employment under the Fair Work Act and most states and territories, but aren’t covered by federal anti-discrimination laws.

But Ms Brown said the genesis of the review – that equality for LGBTIQ people somehow poses a threat to religious freedom – was “deeply flawed”.

“We reject this utterly, and remain concerned that conservative religious forces within the Coalition will be extracting their ‘price’ for marriage equality. There should be no price paid for equality,” she said.

“We need strong discrimination laws to ensure equal treatment. People of faith should be free from discrimination in every community.

“At the same time, blanket exemptions that automatically privilege the rights of religious groups over other Australians must be avoided – particularly for organisations funded by taxpayers’ money.”

Ms Brown said the religious freedom review highlights the need for Australia to consolidate and modernise its “inconsistent and outdated” anti-discrimination laws and introduce a Human Rights Act.

“The Religious Freedoms Review has brought to light the need for our anti-discrimination laws to be comprehensively modernised and consolidated in line with community standards.

“Our laws should apply equally, regardless of what your faith is, where you’re from or who you love.”