Removing fences: the ALRC Consultation Paper on Religious Educational Institutions and Discrimination Laws

The Australian Law Reform Commission has now released a Consultation Paper for its current reference on “Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws”. The paper, while formally acknowledging the importance of religious freedom and parental rights, will be a serious disappointment to those involved in religious schools and colleges. It effectively recommends the removal of protections enjoyed by religious educational institutions which have been designed to safeguard the ability of these organisations to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs. The “fences” protecting these bodies from being forced to conform to majority views on sexual behaviour and identity (and hence losing their distinctiveness as religious bodies) are to be knocked down, the ALRC says. But the paper offers no convincing reasons for this wholesale demolition of a structure which has served the diversity and plurality of the Australian community for many years. Rather than supporting “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”, the paper’s recommendations would require a compulsory uniformity which would undermine the reasons for the existence of faith-based educational institutions.

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Successful religious discrimination claim in foster-carer case

Just before Christmas, a significant religious discrimination decision was handed down in the Western Australian State Administrative Tribunal. In HORDYK and WANSLEA FAMILY SERVICES INC [2022] WASAT 117 (23 December 2022), the Tribunal held that Mr and Mrs Hordyk had been indirectly discriminated against on the ground of their religious beliefs, when told by Wanslea Family Services that they were not suitable to be appointed as foster carers for children between 0 and 5 years. Their rejection came after they told Wanslea that as Christians who took the Bible seriously, “in the event that a foster child who had been placed in their care was found kissing a child of the same sex at school, they would tell the child that they were loved but that the behaviour was sinful and needed to be resisted” (from para [4]). Wanslea then terminated the process for assessment, and marked their application “assessed to not meet competencies”. The Tribunal found that these actions amounted to unlawful discrimination, and ordered payment of a modest award of damages ($3000 each) and removal of the annotation on the file. The decision is an important affirmation of rights of religious freedom.

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ALRC inquiry into Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws

The Commonwealth Attorney-General has announced that the Australian Law Reform Commission will be conducting an inquiry into the general area of “Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws”. Detailed information about the inquiry can be seen at their home page.

Readers may recall that the ALRC had previously been given a wider inquiry by the former government: the web-page notes that

The Terms of Reference replace a previous Inquiry into religious exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation that has been on hold since March 2020.

This new inquiry, while narrower in terms of being limited to religious educational institutions, comes with a number of assumptions that some may find problematic:

The Terms of Reference describe the Government’s commitments as ensuring ‘that an educational institution conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed:

  • must not discriminate against a student on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
  • must not discriminate against a member of staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
  • can continue to build a community of faith by giving preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of staff’.

The Commission has indicated that it will have regard to submissions made to the previous inquiry, but that it also “will undertake further consultations”. Organisations and individuals who are interested in making submissions to the inquiry (when public submissions are called for) can “subscribe” to email updates from the ALRC here. Given that the inquiry has quite a tight timeline (it is due to report on 21 April 2023) I suspect that submissions may need to be put together fairly quickly over the Christmas/New Year period.

Update

The ALRC has now released a consultation timetable (which can be seen here) which indicates that they will be releasing a discussion paper for general comments on 27 January 2023, to which responses need to be provided by 24 February 2023.

Newcastle Breakfast event for lawyers- Nov 30

For lawyers (and law students) who are interested in Law and Religion issues and are (or will be) in Newcastle on Wednesday Nov 30, our local lawyer’s Christian fellowship, in partnership with Sydney-based organisation Third Space, are running a breakfast seminar (7:30-8:30) on the topic “Wisdom for Good Government”.

The description of the topic and the speaker are as follows:

The governmental response to Covid-19 has precipitated (virtually unprecedented?) debate within Australian society about the proper reach of our authorities. The legitimacy or otherwise of ‘civil disobedience’ to legislative mandates has been hotly debated. How are we to chart a course through these choppy waters?

We are very pleased to have David Robertson as our speaker:

David Robertson is an experienced presenter and debater on the place of the Christian faith in the public sphere, a prolific blogger at The Wee Flea and he was the minister at St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, Scotland for 27 years. David joined City Bible Forum in 2019 to lead a new initiative called Third Space. Whilst continuing to speak at City Legal, David also works with churches, seeking to help them communicate the good news in a world that desperately needs it.

The event will be held in room x-704 in the University of Newcastle city campus (“Nuspace”), on the corner of Hunter and Auckland Streets in the Newcastle CBD. Full details and a link to register can be found here: https://thirdspace.org.au/civicrm/event/info?id=2878&reset=1 . You can order some breakfast as well!

Football CEO dismissed for religious beliefs

The recently appointed new CEO of the Essendon Football Club in Victoria, Andrew Thorburn, has been pushed out of his job on account of views expressed by the church he belongs to and on whose board of management he sits. Those views, which even the club itself accepts were not stated personally by Mr Thorburn and which had to be found by scouring a database of sermons back to 2013, represent views on moral issues that have been shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews and many other religious believers for a long time. They are not “radical” or “hateful” or “bigoted”. It is arguable that the Club has breached Victorian anti-discrimination law.

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An Anglican “lifeboat” for Australia

We have recently seen the announcement of the activation of a new “extra-provincial” Anglican diocese in Australia. The “Diocese of the Southern Cross” (“DSC”) is not a part of the official “Anglican Church of Australia” (“ACA”). It has been set up to provide an ecclesiastical home for congregations who are Anglican by theology and conviction but find themselves unable to accept the authority of bishops of the ACA who do not accept the teachings of the Bible, especially on the subject of the Biblical views of marriage. So the far the DSC has only one congregation in its network, but there may be others who join as the divide within Anglicans in Australia deepens.

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First volume of Australian Journal of Law and Religion published

Great to see that the first volume of the Australian Journal of Law and Religion has been published: see here. All articles are free to download. Congratulations to editors Alex Deagon and Jeremy Patrick on this new venture! I am honoured to have an article in this first issue on “Religious Freedom, Section 109 of the Constitution, and Anti-discrimination Laws”.

For convenience, here is a copy of the first table of contents:

Articles

Law and Religion in the Classroom: Teaching Church-State Relationships: Renae Barker

The Formation of Islamic Law in Indonesia: The Interplay Between Islamic Authorities and the State: Muhammad Latif Fauzi

Religious Freedom, Section 109 of the Constitution, and Anti-discrimination Laws: Neil Foster

Why the Jury in Pell v The Queen Must Have Had a Doubt and the High Court was Right to Quash the Guilty Verdicts: Andrew Hemming

Adolescent Gender Identity and the Sex Discrimination Act: The Case for Religious Exemptions: Patrick Parkinson

Book Reviews

Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World by Greg Sheridan: Katie Murray

Law and Religion in the Liberal State edited by Md Jahid Hossain Bhuiyan and Darryn Jensen: Jeremy Patrick

Special Topic Forum: The Future of Law and Religion in Australia

The Continued Existence of the Crime of Blasphemy in Australia: Luke Beck

Proportionality in Australian Constitutional Law: Next Stop Section 116?: Anthony Gray

The Liberal and Post-Liberal Futures of Law and Religion in Australia: Joel Harrison

Happy reading!

Academic conference on Theology and Jurisprudence- call for papers

I am happy to post this call for academic papers to be presented at a forthcoming conference in Adelaide (South Australia) on “Theology and Jurisprudence”. (For the moment this will be of interest only to those academics who would like to suggest a paper to be presented.)

Call for papers

Theology and Jurisprudence Symposium  

10 February 2023, Adelaide Law School (‘ALS’), South Australia

Proposal submission deadline: 1 November 2022

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Freedom of speech for University student protected

A recent decision of the NSW Supreme Court has applied a rarely used provision in legislation setting up Australian universities to provide a legal remedy for a student penalised for her comments on a controversial issue. In Thiab v Western Sydney University [2022] NSWSC 760 (10 June 2022) Parker J ruled that the actions of Western Sydney University (“WSU”) in penalising the student, Ms Thiab, for comments she had made expressing disagreement with the State’s compulsory vaccination requirements, were unlawful. The case is an interesting example of protection of a student’s freedom of speech through application of the legislation establishing the University, and would apply not only to “political” comments as in this case, but also to religious beliefs.

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