Religious Schools Call For Widening Of Anti-Discrimination Exemptions


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Christian Schools Australia has defended the ability of religious schools to hire and fire staff based on their adherence to religious codes.

In a submission to Philip Ruddock’s review into Australian religious freedom, the group warned that “removing the ability of Christian schools to employ staff who share the school’s values and beliefs would undermine the essential nature of the school,” The Guardian reported.

“If freedom of religion is to remain a legitimate hallmark of Australian education then the rights of school communities to operate in accordance with religious beliefs must be upheld,” the group wrote.

“This must include the right to choose all staff based on their belief in, and adherence to, the beliefs, tenets and doctrines of the religion concerned.”

Under existing anti-discrimination laws, various exemptions allow religious groups to hire and fire staff on the basis of their sexuality, marital status and other characteristics.

In November, a Baptist school in Western Australia sacked a relief teacher who revealed his sexuality in a Facebook post.

In the submission, Christian Schools Australia argued for existing religious exemptions to be widened giving schools the power to choose staff by defining it as a legal form of “differentiation”, rather than an exemption to discrimination law, The Guardian reported.

The group claimed exemptions in Queensland’s anti-discrimination laws are too narrow, requiring religious objections to be an “inherent requirement” of the religion, meaning schools couldn’t sack staff who “may have a fundamentally antithetical faith position” to the school.

The group claimed school staff leading a “double life” undermined their duty to the school and was a form of “duplicity and deceit” that was “not in anybody’s interests.”

LGBTI advocacy group just.equal called for the scrapping of all laws that allow discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

“This includes those provisions that allow discrimination and vilification by religious individuals and faith-based organisations such as schools, hospitals, welfare agencies and aged care facilities,” the group wrote.

Last month, the group said the best way to protect genuine religious freedom and LGBTIQ equality was an Australian Bill of Rights enshrining both into law.

“The current ‘religious freedom’ movement has nothing to do with genuine freedom and everything to do with punching holes in Australian laws that protect LGBTIQ people and other minorities from discrimination and disadvantage,” spokesperson Ivan Hinton-Teoh said.

Human rights group Amnesty International recommended in their submission that religious organisations, including educational institutions, who receive public funding be prohibited from “discriminating in the provision of those services in ways that would otherwise be unlawful”.

The group also recommended the federal government legislate a Human Rights Act for Australia, to ensure rights to freedom of religion and right to equality are “protected and appropriately balanced.”

The National Council of Churches in Australia said in its submission to the review that freedom of religion was already “in reasonable shape” in Australia, but claimed religious people had been verbally and physically abused during the same-sex marriage debate.

In its submission, the Australian Capital Territory government reminded their federal colleagues that the right to religious freedom was one of many freedoms already protected under the ACT’s Human Rights Act.

“Any federal legislation that would lock in discriminatory practices, like denying goods or services to same-sex couples, or to anyone based on their sexuality, race, gender or indeed religion, would contravene the ACT’s Human Rights Act and the values of the Canberra community,” ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said.

“The right to Freedom of Religion is no greater or lesser than the right to freedom from discrimination.

“These freedoms must be routinely balanced and limited against each other, and that is what the ACT’s Human Rights Act does.”

Announcing the religious freedom review in November ahead of the parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said any reforms to protect religious freedom “should be undertaken carefully.”

“There is a high risk of unintended consequences when Parliament attempts to legislate protections for basic rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion,” he said.

“The Government is particularly concerned to prevent uncertainties caused by generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations.”

Earlier this month, Fairfax Media reported that the Queensland government will introduce a Human Rights Act to the state in the next three years, modelled on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act introduced in 2006.

Other panelists on the religious freedom review include Human Rights Commissioner Rosalind Croucher, Federal Court Judge Annabelle Bennett, University of Queensland constitutional law professor Nicholas Aroney and Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan.

Submissions to the review close today, and the review is expected to report its findings by March 31.