Philip Ruddock, the head of the religious freedom review, has clarified that the review panel’s report has not recommended the expansion of anti-discrimination exemptions, as the federal government argues the law already allows religious schools to turn away gay teachers and students.
Leaked portions of the religious freedom review panel’s long-awaited report, published by Fairfax Media, caused outrage on Wednesday for reportedly recommending changes to the federal Sex Discrimination Act to enshrine the right for religious schools to discriminate against students and teachers on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“To some school communities, cultivating an environment and ethos which conforms to their religious beliefs is of paramount importance,” the review states, according to Fairfax Media.
“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.” Religious schools would have to explain their policy in a public document, according to the report.
Ruddock told ABC Radio the review’s recommendation was “not suggesting that the law should be expanded” but instead be “contracted” and made consistent across the country.
“We were simply saying it should be contracted to ensure that that information was clear and unambiguous in relation to those who were seeking to enroll children,” he said.
“There may be a small number of schools who see that as a significant issue for religious reasons.
“Provided they make it clear, and abundantly clear, that they are the rules under which they’re operating, that should be the basis upon which it occurs.”
Several states already give religious schools the power to hire and fire teachers under exemptions in state anti-discrimination legislation, which LGBTIQ groups said go “too far” in submissions to the review.
Section 38 of the federal Sex Discrimination Act currently gives religious schools an exemption on sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status when the discrimination is “in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”
The Ruddock review, which was handed to the federal government in May and is yet to be released, reportedly states that it is “not an easy balance to strike” but the Act should be amended to explicitly codify the terms on which the exemption should apply.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said that recommendation was “not a change” because the discrimination was already allowed under “existing law”.
“We’re not proposing to change that law to take away that existing arrangement that exists,” he said.
He earlier said the review panel’s report would be “carefully and respectfully” considered before any final decision was made.
“This is an independent report to government, not a report from government,” he 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.”
But LGBTIQ advocates are concerned any changes at the federal level would conflict with state laws banning discrimination against teachers and students. In Tasmania’s case, such a law has been in place for 20 years, just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome said.
“The existing law in Tasmania prohibits discrimination by religious schools on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.
“We call on Scott 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.”
Croome said that even if a potential federal law reflects existing exemptions in the mainland states, it will encourage discrimination and “give new life to old prejudices.”
“There would be an upsurge in LGBTI students being excluded and teachers fired,” he said.
“Mr Morrison has mislead the nation by suggesting nothing will change.”
‘Breeding grounds of prejudice’
Responding to the original Fairfax report, Croome said the group would lobby Liberal moderates, Labor and the Senate crossbench to oppose any attempts to weaken anti-discrimination protections.
“Schools should be places of learning, not breeding grounds of prejudice,” he said.
“Any school that receives public money should abide by the same rules as the rest of society, including the same rules about fair treatment and discrimination.”
Croome said that faith-based aged-care facilities can’t discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and neither should schools.
Last November, a Baptist school in Western Australia sacked a relief teacher who revealed his sexuality in a Facebook post.
Morrison said last month he was displeased with the “trajectory” of religious freedom in Australia and “preventative regulation and legislation” was needed to protect against hypothetical future threats.
Independent New South Wales MP Alex Greenwich, one of the key campaigners for marriage equality last year, said allowing religious schools to discriminate against students and teachers was “cruel” and out of step with community attitudes.
“One of the tragic things out of this report is it seeks to establish a narrative of gay versus God,” he told Sky News.
“The faith community is largely supportive of the LGBTQI community and the LGBTQI community is very supportive and respective of the faith community.”