Gay stu­dents could be re­jected by re­li­gious schools un­der new laws, re­port claims

The Guardian Australia - - Politics - Aus­tralian As­so­ci­ated Press and Paul Karp

Gay stu­dents and teach­ers could be re­jected by re­li­gious schools un­der changes to anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws be­ing rec­om­mended by a fed­eral re­view into re­li­gious free­dom.

The for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Philip Rud­dock, who chaired the re­view, said the right of schools to turn away gay stu­dents and teach­ers should be en­shrined in the Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act.

Scott Mor­ri­son has de­fended the rec­om­men­da­tion, claim­ing that it is the “ex­ist­ing law” that re­li­gious schools can turn away gay stu­dents, de­spite sev­eral states ban­ning the prac­tice.

“To some school com­mu­ni­ties, cul­ti­vat­ing an en­vi­ron­ment and ethos which con­forms to their re­li­gious beliefs is of para­mount im­por­tance,” the re­view says, ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald.

“To the ex­tent that this can be done in the con­text of ap­pro­pri­ate safe­guards for the rights and men­tal health of the child, the panel ac­cepts their right to se­lect, or pref­er­ence, stu­dents who up­hold the re­li­gious con­vic­tions of that school com­mu­nity.”

The power to hire and fire teach­ers based on their sex­u­al­ity is al­ready con­tained in sev­eral state laws, which ex­empt re­li­gious schools from laws that ban dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ground of sex­u­al­ity.

But if the Rud­dock rec­om­men­da­tion is adopted, it would ex­tend pow­ers to re­li­gious schools to dis­crim­i­nate against gay staff in states that do not cur­rently grant ex­emp­tions, such as Tas­ma­nia, states with nar­row ex­emp­tions, like Western Aus­tralia, and states that pro­hibit dis­crim­i­na­tion against stu­dents, like Queens­land.

Guardian Aus­tralia un­der­stands the Rud­dock pro­posal would re­quire schools to pub­licly state its pol­icy to gain the abil­ity to dis­crim­i­nate against staff and stu­dents on the ground of sex­u­al­ity. Schools would have to have re­gard to the “best in­ter­ests of the child” as the pri­mary con­sid­er­a­tion be­fore ex­pelling them.

The Rud­dock re­view was com­mis­sioned after the 2017 same-sex mar­riage vote and handed to the fed­eral govern­ment five months ago. It is still to be of­fi­cially re­leased.

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.

In a state­ment on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the prime min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son said: “Our govern­ment will con­sider the de­tails and re­lease our re­sponse after it has gone through a proper cab­i­net process.”

“We will pro­tect re­li­gious free­dom, and get the bal­ance right,” he said. “Each pro­posal will be con­sid­ered care­fully and re­spect­fully be­fore any fi­nal de­ci­sions are taken.”

At a press con­fer­ence Mor­ri­son said nine times that it is the “ex­ist­ing law” that re­li­gious schools can turn away gay stu­dents, ac­cus­ing the me­dia of “con­fu­sion” about the Rud­dock pro­posal.

LGBTI ad­vo­cates fear the com­ments in­di­cate the fed­eral govern­ment will move to over­ride state dis­crim­i­na­tion laws with a broad re­li­gious ex­emp­tion.

Tas­ma­nian Gay and Les­bian Rights Group spokesper­son, Rod­ney Croome, said Tas­ma­nian law had pre­vented dis­crim­i­na­tion by re­li­gious schools against LGBTI stu­dents and teach­ers, and “the sky hasn’t fallen in”.

“Anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws on the main­land should come up to the stan­dards set in Tas­ma­nia, in­stead of be­ing wa­tered down as the Rud­dock panel has pro­posed.”

En­trench­ing the power to hire and fire gay teach­ers and eject gay stu­dents was one of the cen­tral de­mands of the Catholic church, the Angli­can Dio­cese of Syd­ney and Chris­tian Schools Aus­tralia in sub­mis­sions to the Rud­dock re­view.

But ac­cord­ing to the Fair­fax re­port, the re­view stops short of calls for a separate Re­li­gious Free­dom Act or new ex­emp­tions to al­low com­mer­cial ser­vice providers to dis­crim­i­nate against LGBTI peo­ple.

The re­view is ex­pected to call for changes to make it un­law­ful to dis­crim­i­nate against some­one on the ba­sis of their re­li­gious be­lief or lack thereof, which LGBTI ad­vo­cates in­clud­ing the Equal­ity Cam­paign ac­cepted in their sub­mis­sions.

Alex Green­wich, the New South Wales In­de­pen­dent MP who co-chaired the na­tional cam­paign in sup­port of same-sex mar­riage, de­manded Mor­ri­son rule out the rec­om­men­da­tion for schools to have a right to dis­crim­i­nate on sex­u­al­ity.

“The rec­om­men­da­tion to in­crease dis­crim­i­na­tion in schools against the gay teach­ers and stu­dents is of­fen­sive to par­ents, teach­ers and school com­mu­ni­ties,” Green­wich said. “The govern­ment should be fo­cus­ing on re­duc­ing, not in­creas­ing bul­ly­ing in schools”

Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers for the Guardian

Philip Rud­dock, the for­mer Lib­eral at­tor­ney gen­eral, was asked to lead a re­port into re­li­gious free­doms. The re­port has been handed to thegovern­ment but is yet to be re­leased.

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