Reports in the press note that that the ACT Government has announced its intention to “close a loophole” in discrimination laws by removing the capacity of religious schools to apply their religious beliefs in staffing decisions. The law being referred to is not a “loophole”, it is part of the fundamental architecture of discrimination law around Australia, with rare exceptions, and removing these provisions would not be a good idea.
I am presenting a briefing to some members of the Synod of the Sydney Anglican Diocese providing an overview of the leaked recommendations of the Ruddock Report, and the three most important areas of reform flowing from those recommendations. The full paper can be downloaded here, and my Powerpoint presentation is available here: Ruddock summary PP.
In short, I think the three most significant areas are:
1.Rec 15, that the Commonwealth enact a Religious Discrimination Act (and rec 2, on principles to follow in drafting such an Act);
2.Recs 5-8, that religious schools generally remain free to run their schools consistently with their religious ethos; and
3.Rec 9, concerning parents being given notice by schools of teaching which might be contrary to their beliefs.
In the paper I explain why these are important. I also provide a brief indication of my views on the other recommendations in an Appendix to the paper.
(This guest blog post was provided by Dr Alex Deagon, FHEA, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology.)
On 17thOctober 2018 the Queensland Parliament passed the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 (Qld). This law will, among other things, allow abortion on demand up to 22 weeks’ gestation, and abortion up to full term if approved by two independent doctors who agree it is appropriate taking into account all the circumstances. Setting aside for one moment the significant objections to the primary function of this legislation in general, a major point of contention with the bill was the extent to which health practitioners are able to refrain from providing abortion services because they have a conscientious objection.
The Greens party has introduced a bill into the Senate dealing with a number of the issues that have been discussed in recent days about the right of religious schools to conduct their education in accordance with their faith commitment. The so-called Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018 would remove the capacity of religious schools (and, importantly, many other religious organisations) to make staffing decisions in line with their religious beliefs. It is a serious attack on religious freedom, and should be voted down by the Senate when debate resumes.
Following the recent debate about whether religious schools in Australia should be entitled to expel gay students on account of their sexual orientation alone (as to which all seem to be agreed the answer is, No), there is now a push to remove the freedom of religious schools to make staffing decisions on these issues. The ALP has announced that they want to pursue this issue when amendments relating to students are debated in Parliament. It even seems that some members of the LNP Government are unclear about the issue.
While “orientation alone” should not be a ground to expel or discipline students, removing the provisions that allow schools to make these decisions in relation to staff is a bad idea. Religious schools exist because parents want the option to see their children educated in an institution which supports their religious and moral worldview. Students do not just learn academic truths from their teachers; in many cases they admire them as people, and model themselves on the values their teachers live out. Hence someone who is committed, by their identification and activity, to opposing the moral framework of the school, is not suitable to be working as part of that school community. A fully committed member of the Greens would not be suitable to work in the office of the Conservatives. The same issues arise in relation to religious schools and same sex oriented teachers.
Following my previous post on this issue, press reports indicated that the Prime Minister is proposing that the Parliament urgently amend the provisions of s 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act1984 (Cth) which allow religious schools to expel students on the basis of sexual orientation. If this goes ahead, there is still a need to protect the legitimate interests of such schools in not seeing the religious ethos of the school undermined. In this post I want to suggest some ways that could be achieved.
A media outlet here in Australia has released what it says are the 20 recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock. The Report itself was delivered to the Government in May 2018, but has not officially been released. Apparently the Government is planning to release the Report at the same time as announcing its official response.
The main issue which has generated controversy during the last week, in which there was a selective leaking of some of the recommendations, were proposals dealing with the rights of religious schools to take into account the sexual orientation of students in certain areas. The changes proposed were not radical changes to the existing law, but were presented as such when first publicised. In this post I want to briefly set these recommendations in context and offer my preliminary response.
The UK Supreme Court has now ruled that the Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland was not guilty of sexual orientation discrimination by politely declining to bake a cake decorated with a message in support of same sex marriage- see Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd  UKSC 49 (10 Oct 2018). This is an important decision illustrating the clear difference between a decision based on someone’s personal characteristics, and a refusal to support a specific message.
I presented a paper today (linked here) to a seminar at the University where I work, on the topic of “Religious Freedom at Australian Universities”. It explores some of the challenges facing staff and students in this area, and explores some of the ways that religious freedom is currently protected (and where there are gaps in that protection.) I use examples from the policies framed in my local context, but similar policies and legislation would be relevant at most Australian Universities. Others involved in this area may find the paper helpful in outlining issues and options.