Archbishop apologises for hurt to gays
The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, has apologised for the distress caused by a letter signed by the heads of Anglican schools calling on the government to defend religious freedoms.
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, Dr Davies said the letter — sent last week to all federal MPs — had the “unfortunate consequence of affecting many gay students and teachers in our schools”.
The apology came as Labor’s legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus attacked the government for mishandling its response to the review of religious freedoms led by former Liberal attorney-general Philip Ruddock.
Dr Davies said he was “deeply sorry” for any hurt caused to gay staff or students, but argued that the response highlighted the need for the Coalition and Labor to work together to overhaul and strengthen protections for religious freedoms.
The Australian exclusively revealed the contents of the letter — signed by the heads of the 34 Sydney Anglican diocese schools — in which they called for religious protections to be framed as a “positive” right rather than a “negative” right.
This is because the protections are expressed as “exemptions” in the Sex Discrimination Act.
Instead of upholding the ability of faith-based schools to promote their own ethos and values, religious educators are given the right to “discriminate” in certain circumstances.
In his statement, Dr Davies acknowledged the letter had created confusion in Anglican schools but argued that this underscored the need for reform.
“This past week has demonstrated it is untenable that religious freedoms be expressed as exemptions in discrimination acts,” he said.
“Some exemptions, such as those relating to sexuality, we do not use and have no wish to preserve. But the mere fact these remain on the statute books has alarmed people.
“Therefore, I have approached the government and the opposition for an immediate bipartisan approach which would remove these exemptions and create legislation which provides a positive protection for freedom of religion.”
Dr Davies said some of the principals of the 34 Anglican schools had told him of the “distress the letter has caused”.
“There were fears that gay students were going to be expelled or gay teachers sacked,” he says. “This really saddens me. Our schools do not expel students or dismiss staff on the basis of their sexuality, nor have they ever wanted this right.”
Writing for The Australian earlier this week, Dr Davies said the current system of exemptions was “misleading, confusing and totally unsatisfactory” because it “immediately frames the debate in terms of sex and discrimination”.
The letter was aimed at sounding the alarm on a push by Labor and Greens MPs to remove key exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act. If successful, this push would have removed the ability of religious schools to discriminate against teachers on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The principals clarified in their open letter that they did not want to discriminate against gay teachers, but warned that the exemption was the “only significant” legal protection for schools.
Attorney-General Christian Porter told The Australian: “It has always been and continues to be the government’s intention to engage in a bipartisan process around this issue.”