Liberal Dave Sharma rejects giving religious schools right to expel gay students
The Liberal candidate for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, has rejected “any new measures” to extendreligious schools’ power to expel gay students and sack gay teachers.
Sharma made the comments at a doorstop in Wentworth on Wednesday, as the Coalitionstruggled to contain fallout from the leak of one section of the Ruddock religious freedom review which backed schools’ right to turn away gay students.
Scott Morrison responded by arguing that represents the “existing law”. A further leak on Wednesday afternoon suggested the Ruddock review panel did not intend to call for repeal of state anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTI students and staff.
Senior figures including Morrison and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg stressed the Ruddock review is a report to government and cabinet has not yet formulated a new policy.
The government has had the report since May but continues to refuse to release it publicly.
On Wednesday morning Fairfax Media reported the Ruddock review said it was of “paramount importance” for school communities to be able to cultivate an ethos which conforms to their religious belief, which the Catholic church and other religious groups submitted includes a right to not hire gay staff and to expel gay students.
The panel accepted religious schools’ “right to select, or preference, students who uphold the religious convictions of that school community” subject to “appropriate safeguards for the rights and mental health of the child”, it said.
On Wednesday afternoon a further section of the review – seen by Guardian Australia – was leaked stating that “to the extent that some jurisdictions do not currently allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender characteristics, the panel sees no need to introduce such provisions”.
“Very few religious schools or organisations submitted that this was necessary.”
Jurisdictions that do allow such discrimination – including the commonwealth – should require that schools first publish a policy which is “grounded in the religious doctrines of the school” before turning away students, it said.
Guardian Australia also understands the report recommended a safeguard that schools would have to have regard to the “best interests of the child” as the primary consideration. The panel also rejected discrimination on the basis of race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status.
Earlier,Morrison was asked if schools should be allowed to turn away gay students. In reply, he referred eight times to that being the “existing” law, accusing the media of “confusion” about the Ruddock proposal after the Fairfax report.
Federal law provides an exemption for religious schools to discriminate against staff or students “where it is done in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed”.
But discrimination law experts including Professor Beth Gaze at the University of Melbourne, Jonathon Hunyor, chief executive of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and Anna Brown, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, all told Guardian Australia that federal law does not exclude the operation of state laws against discrimination.
Tasmanian law bans both discrimination against staff and students on the basis of sexual orientation, while the Queensland law does not allow discrimination against students.
LGBTI advocates fear that enshrining the current federal exemption to anti-discrimination law could give it precedence over those state laws, as well as stifling attempts to strengthen protections for LGBTI people under consideration in Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Just Equal spokesman, Rodney Croome, called on Morrison “to rule out any potential override of the Tasmanian law, and any attempt to stop the other states from moving up to the standard set in Tasmania”.
Hunyor said that “some states and territories have adopted a different approach and do a better job at balancing the right to freedom of religion with the right to non-discrimination”.
“If we want consistency, we should be looking for best-practice – not a lowering of the standard.”
Hunyor said overriding state and territory laws “would be a significant retrograde step in the protection of human rights in Australia and contrary to the overwhelming expression of support for equality evidenced by last year’s postal survey into the issue of same-sex marriage”.
At a press conference in Wentworth ahead of the 20 October byelection, Frydenberg clarified that existing laws allow schools to turn away gay students “in certain circumstances”, adding that the government is “not proposing to change existing laws”.
Sharma – who is facing a challenge from LGBTI advocate and independent candidate Kerryn Phelps – said he would “be opposed to any new measures that impose forms of discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, or anything else for that matter”.
The special minister of state Alex Hawke said he “absolutely” backs schools’ right to turn away gay students. “I don’t think its controversial in Australia that people expect religious schools to teach the practice of their faith and their religion,” he told Sky News.
The Labor deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, said her party was fundamentally opposed to increasing discrimination, although she has previously said Labor has no plans to roll back existing exemptions for religious institutions.
“As a human being and as a mother, the idea that adults would be discriminating against or rejecting children seems to me pretty awful,” Plibersek told Sky News on Wednesday.
The Greens’ LGBTIQ spokeswoman, Janet Rice, said the Ruddock review recommendation was “unacceptable” as it would “change our laws to allow religious schools to expel students on the basis of who they are or who they love at a time when they are already vulnerable”.
Australian Conservatives candidate – and the head of the anti same-sex marriage campaign in the marriage law postal survey – Lyle Shelton said that religious communities “should be allowed to preserve their ethos”.
“The yes campaign said redefining marriage would have no consequences for other peoples’ beliefs. They should stick to that. Live and let live.”
Liberal candidate for Wentworth Dave Sharma is facing a challenge from LGBTI advocateand independent Kerryn Phelps as his party struggles to contain the fallout from the leakedRuddock review recommendation on religious schools.
Independent candidate for WentworthKerryn Phelps.