Lib­eral Dave Sharma re­jects giv­ing re­li­gious schools right to ex­pel gay stu­dents

The Guardian Australia - - News - Paul Karp

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.”

Pho­to­graph: Joel Car­rett/AAP

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.

Pho­to­graph: Joel Car­rett/ AAP

In­de­pen­dent can­di­date for Went­worthKer­ryn Phelps.

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