Labor urged to clarify stance on religious exemptions before election

Labor leader Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek
Photo: YouTube

LGBTIQ advocates have called for federal Labor to clarify the party’s stance on removing anti-discrimination exemptions affecting LGBTIQ staff at religious schools before the federal election.

just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome said Labor “seems to be backing two horses” after Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek told a Catholic Schools forum on Tuesday that religious schools should be able to hire staff who “faithfully represent their values.”

Plibersek told the forum she didn’t believe that there was “tension at all” between schools requiring employees to uphold their values and protecting people from discrimination.

“The way it was put to me was what we want is employees who can live by or demonstrate the values of our school,” she said.

“And I think that it is possible to find that balance where we don’t discriminate against people because of who they love or how they identify but that those people who are employees of an organisation have to faithfully represent the values of that organisation.

“I really don’t think that’s beyond us.”

But Rodney Croome said LGBTIQ teachers in faith-based schools “need certainty that they will be protected from discrimination under a Labor Government.”

“We want to know whether, for example, Labor intends to allow discrimination at the point of recruitment but not after, or if an LGBTI teacher is married, but not if they are single,” he said.

“If Labor is truly for workers, it should provide LGBTI teachers with the same level of job security as other teachers.”

The Sex Discrimination Act prevents discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status but there are exemptions that permit religious schools to discriminate in their employment decisions, education and training “to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion”.

After a political deadlock over amendments to the laws last October, the Coalition government passed the matter of religious exemptions to the Australian Law Reform Commission, which is due to report next year.

In a response to questions by Equality Australia, Labor said that if elected the party “will amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the exemptions that permit religious schools to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.”

“We do not believe that freedom from discrimination and religious freedom are mutually exclusive,” the response reads.

“We do not believe that the removal of these exemptions will hamper a religious school’s capacity to continue to teach its religion and operate according to its traditions and beliefs.

“If elected, a Shorten Labor Government will consult with stakeholders on the best way forward to address this issue, and then legislate to make our commitment law.”

But Labor also told the National Catholic Education Commission that the party “is not proposing to amend the indirect discrimination provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act that allow educational institutions to impose reasonable conditions, requirements or practices in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed.”

“The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek, made our position on the rights of religious schools very clear in Parliament when she stated, “Schools are also entitled to have rules that ensure staff … don’t ‘deliberately and wilfully behave contrary to the values of the school,’” Labor wrote in its response.

Croome said that for over twenty years, discrimination laws in Tasmania have protected LGBTIQ teachers from discrimination at faith-based schools and the same standard should be applied nationally.

“While it’s true that Labor’s policy on LGBTI discrimination is better than Coalition’s, this is no excuse for Labor to go to the election with an LGBTI discrimination policy that delivers less than full equality,” he said.

Croome said just.equal had recently written to Labor’s shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, to ask for clarification on the issue, including whether Labor would move to repeal provisions allowing LGBTIQ discrimination in other faith-based services such as hospitals and social services.

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