A Senate committee examining a bill to scrap legal exemptions allowing discrimination against LGBT students at faith schools has recommended a further review, continuing the political impasse on the issue.
In its report released on Thursday, the government-led committee into the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018, introduced by Labor senator Penny Wong, recommended it not be passed and instead be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) “in order to properly and comprehensively assess the consequences arising from any potential legislative changes.”
The committee’s report said that while issues raised by the bill “are of great concern to the Australian community” and removal of the exemptions has widespread support, the Labor bill is “reactionary” and “poorly drafted”.
“While the committee considers it necessary and appropriate to prohibit discrimination against LGBTIQ+ school students, it is of the view that this should not occur at the expense of the ability of religious educational institutions to maintain their ethos through what they teach and the rules of conduct that they impose on their students,” the report reads.
“Religious freedom is a vital aspect of Australian society and religious communities should feel respected and protected.
“Additionally, faith-based schools have a unique and important role to play in Australia’s education system.
“It is imperative that they are able to maintain their religious ethos and teach in accordance with their beliefs, without the threat of legal liability.
“Although the circulated government amendments represent a reasonable and sensible attempt to remedy the overreach and unintended consequences of the bill while still honouring its original intent, the committee is of the opinion that matters of anti-discrimination and religious freedom are too important and too complex to be dealt with in haste.
“Rather than a piecemeal, reactionary approach, as exemplified by the poor drafting of the bill and the short time frame allocated for this inquiry, the committee believes a more considered, holistic proposition is required to ensure that the matter is resolved in the best possible way.”
But Labor senators on the committee disagreed, writing in a dissenting report they were “deeply disappointed the Government has failed to act on its commitment to legislate on this question and has instead subjected young people who are currently without protection from discrimination to an ongoing and divisive debate.”
“Labor is proud to have put forward this bill which will remove the exemptions within the Sex Discrimination Act that allow religious educational institutions to discriminate against children in connection with the provision of education or training,” they wrote.
“Labor is greatly concerned that the exemption to the SDA for religious organisations, rather than simply providing for religious freedom, can be seen as a mandate to discriminate.
“This bill would not affect the operation of the indirect discrimination provisions in the SDA, which will continue to operate in a manner that allows faith-based institutions to impose reasonable conditions, requirements or practices on students in accordance with [religious] doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings.”
Greens LGBTIQ spokesperson Senator Janet Rice wrote in a second dissenting report that amendments to the bill proposed by the government weren’t needed “as they unnecessarily extend the scope for discrimination by religious institutions.”
“Removing discrimination against both students and staff is justifiable and still consistent with the ability of faith based schools to teach their religious ethos,” Senator Rice wrote.
“This is demonstrated by the fact that anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexuality and gender identity already exist in Tasmania and Queensland.
“Further delay at achieving this reform is unacceptable.”
Just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome, who addressed the inquiry at hearings earlier this month, panned the government for the delay and accused them of “pandering to prejudice”.
“As someone who has seen the benefits of Tasmania’s strong anti-discrimination laws to both LGBTI people and to faith-based schools, I am bewildered why the Tasmanian model isn’t immediately adopted nationally,” he said.
“We don’t need yet another inquiry. We need a Government that will do the right thing.”
On Wednesday, a group of young people and LGBTIQ organisations Minus 18 and Equality Australia delivered more than 50,000 petition signatures to federal senators calling for students and teachers to be protected from religious discrimination.
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