Federal Labor are moving a Senate inquiry to scrutinise the federal government’s draft bill to ban discrimination against gay students in religious schools, as advocates call on the LGBTIQ community to give their views on the issue.
Following the leaking of parts of the Ruddock religious freedom review last month, it emerged a little-known legal exemption broadly permits religious schools to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity.
In response, Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed to amend the law banning schools from turning away gay students.
But the introduction of a bill to do so stalled when Labor and LGBTIQ advocates said the government’s draft bill was too vague and reportedly stated religious schools may impose a condition that indirectly discriminates on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity in certain cases.
On Monday, deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek (pictured) and shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said a Senate inquiry would look at the government’s draft bill.
“A short inquiry will allow the Government’s bill on students to be thoroughly examined and scrutinised — the Government did no consultation, so we are forcing them to,” they said in a statement.
“In particular, the committee will inquire into whether the government’s proposal to expand exemptions for indirect discrimination are necessary in addition to existing protections for schools.”
Labor will also use the inquiry to examine how it could remove discrimination against LGBTIQ staff in religious schools, something they support but the Morrison government has not committed to addressing.
“We will progress this issue by examining how legislative change can best be made to remove discrimination whilst respecting the ability of religious schools to uphold the teachings of their faith,” Plibersek and Dreyfus said.
“Labor is clear – we support the removal of discrimination against LGBTI kids and staff in schools.”
Labor intends for the Senate inquiry to give an interim report on November 26, when the House of Representatives next sits.
Attorney General Christian Porter told The Australian the government was working on the anti-discrimination bill and he would introduce it that week.
“The Government has been working with Labor on a bill which removes discrimination against students and if they are willing to pass it, the Government will introduce it in the next sitting period,” he said.
“Equally, the Government will work with the Committee to achieve the same end.”
Advocates surveying LGBTIQ community
Meanwhile, advocacy group just.equal is seeking the LGBTIQ community’s views on the issue of LGBTIQ students and teachers in faith-based schools.
Spokesperson Ivan Hinton-Teoh said it was important for the LGBTIQ community to have a voice on key questions raised by the Government’s draft bill.
“We are asking LGBTI Australians whether or not discrimination on the new grounds of ‘religious ethos’ is acceptable and whether or not teachers as well as students should be protected from discrimination,” he said.
“We will provide the results to all federal politicians to better inform the coming parliamentary debate.
“We are committed to ensuring the voice of LGBTI community is heard when there are critical decisions to be made about legislation affecting our future.”
You can complete the survey online here.
Anglican school controversy
Last month, a group of 34 New South Wales Anglican school principals signed a letter to federal MPs demanding the controversial religious exemption allowing them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity be kept until a right to freedom of religion is legislated.
The letter argued there was “little evidence” gay students or teachers were being discriminated against but the current exemptions are “the only significant legal protections available to schools to maintain their ethos and values with regards to core issues of faith.”
The letter sparked a nationwide uproar and at least three Anglican principals later apologised and clarified they didn’t want the right to fire gay teachers or turn away gay students.
Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies last week said he was “deeply sorry” for the “distress” caused by the controversial letter but said it was vital to defend religious freedoms.
“The intent was to promote religious freedom for Anglican schools but I realise that it had the unfortunate consequence of affecting many gay students and teachers in our schools, for which I am deeply sorry,” he said in a statement.
“This past week has demonstrated it is untenable that religious freedoms be expressed as exceptions in discrimination Acts. Some exemptions, such as those relating to sexuality, we do not use and have no wish to preserve.”
In response, Greens Senator Janet Rice called on Labor and the Liberals to support the Greens legislation removing the ability to discriminate.
“There’s been a lot of talk from the Morrison government and from Labor about ending discrimination against LGBT+ people in schools, but the time for talk is over,” Senator Rice said on Friday.
“This is really easy. The Labor and Liberal parties need to deliver on their promises to end discrimination in schools and support the Greens bill that is already being debated in the Senate.”