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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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.

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!

ACT Discrimination Law “Reforms” Narrow Religious Freedom

The Australian Capital Territory government has released an Exposure Draft of a Bill to amend that jurisdiction’s Discrimination Act 1991 (“DA”). They have invited public comment by 1 July 2022. As key protections for religious freedom in Australia are often found in “balancing clauses” in discrimination legislation, it is always worth keeping an eye on reforms to these laws. Sadly, these proposed reforms will significantly narrow religious freedom protections in the ACT.

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Religious Freedom Challenges for Theological Colleges in Australia

I am presenting a paper to a seminar for senior leaders in Australian theological colleges, dealing with religious freedom challenges. I comment briefly on some of the current protections provided, but also how those protection have been eroded recently, especially in Victoria (where amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) which I previously commented on have now commenced.) A copy of the paper can be downloaded here:

New book: Law and Religion in the Commonwealth

I am pleased to announce that a new book of which I am one of the editors will be published on 30 June. The book is Law and Religion in the Commonwealth: The Evolution of Case Law (Hart/Bloomsbury, 2022) and my esteemed co-editors are Dr Renae Barker (UWA) and Professor Paul Babie (Adelaide). The book is a collection of studies of law and religion issues from around the Commonwealth of Nations, from established scholars and also from some who are just starting out.

From the publisher’s description:

Each chapter focuses on a specific case from a Commonwealth jurisdiction, examining the history and impact of the case, both within the originating jurisdiction and its wider global context.  

The book contains chapters from leading and emerging scholars from across the Commonwealth, including from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Malaysia, India and Nigeria. 

The cases are divided into four sections covering:
– Foundational Questions in Law and Religion
– Freedom of Religion around the Commonwealth
– Religion and state relations around the Commonwealth
– Rights, Relationships and Religion around the Commonwealth.

Like religion itself, the case law covers a wide spectrum of life. This diversity is reflected in the cases covered in this book, which include: 
– Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur v Home Minister on the use of the Muslim name for God by non-Muslims in Malaysia
– The Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-roll Tax (Vic) which determined the meaning of religion in Australia 
– Eweida v UK which clarified the application of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights 
– R v Big M Drug Mart on the individual protections of religious freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights.  

The book examines how legal disputes involving religion are among the most contested in the courts and shows that in these cases, passions run high and the outcomes can have significant consequences for all involved.

My chapter is an analysis of the key Australian case, Christian Youth Camps Limited v Cobaw Community Health Services Limited and is sub-titled “Balancing Discrimination Rights with Religious Freedom of Organisations”. The book can be pre-ordered here, and will be available from June 30.

More information about the book, and a sample of the first chapter, can be seen here.

Religious school tells parents it will apply its religious beliefs

The above heading doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Isn’t that what one would expect, that a school set up to educate students in a particular religious view would apply those beliefs in its practices? But the press in Australia sees it differently, apparently. “School rules: Brisbane college expects students to denounce homosexuality” is the way that the Sydney Morning Herald puts it (Jan 31). Citipointe Christian College has sent a letter to parents spelling out its views on a number of issues, letting them know that the College expects students and parents to be aware of these views if students are to be sent there. Here I will comment on whether the College is legally justified in so doing.

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Submission to Parliamentary committee on the Religious Discrimination Bill

The submission of Freedom for Faith to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill is now available for download here. I prepared the submission with input from other board members. Submissions to this committee can be made at their website here, but only until 5 pm Tuesday 21 December. There is also a short survey that the Committee have released which it would be good for anyone concerned with religious freedom in Australia to fill in before that same deadline.

Expelling students from religious schools based on sexual orientation?

Current press reports suggest that the Federal Government is contemplating a change to the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which allow religious schools to operate in accordance with their religious commitments, in the area of decisions about students. This is being proposed to allay fears that the recently introduced Religious Discrimination Bill will impact on LGBT students. (See here for my overview of the Bill.) Just to be clear, I think this is a terrible idea- the Australian Law Reform Commission already has a reference on this issue and they should be allowed to complete their work by taking into account all the issues. But I make a few comments on the proposal anyway.

The provision in question is s 38(3) of the SDA, which allows religious schools to make decisions in relation to students in accordance with their religious commitments, and for that not to amount to “sexual orientation” discrimination. Actually religious schools very rarely rely on this provision to expel or discipline students- but there are cases where a religious school may lay down a “code of conduct” or the like which may be seen by some as discriminatory on this basis.

If s 38(3) of the SDA is to be amended so that religious schools may no longer make decisions based on “sexual orientation”, then there still needs to be an explicit protection allowing such schools to require students to conduct themselves in accordance with the religious ethos of the school. It is generally accepted that schools are entitled to set up “reasonable standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students”. A provision to this effect is already contained, for example, in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, s 42. This provision also requires the views of the local school community to be considered. The equivalent in the context of the SDA would be allowing the school to operate in accordance with its religious ethos.

The last time this came up, in 2018, I suggested a possible redraft of s 38(3) which would achieve this outcome: https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/…/ruddock-report…/. Perhaps it could be called s 38A, and I suggest this is what it might look like:

Possible s 38A Nothing in s 21 renders it unlawful for an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, in connection with the provision of education or training, to set and enforce standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students, so long as this is done in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

This would make it clear that decision would not be made on the basis of internal self-identification as “gay”, but on the basis of actual behaviour. A school set up to teach and model the principles of Christianity may want to say, for example, that they do not want to act on student’s internal feelings or temptations, but they cannot support public advocacy and activity which is contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

The Religious Discrimination Bill arrives

After a long wait, the Federal government has released the text of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 which is about to be introduced into the Parliament. There has been no general Federal law dealing with detrimental treatment of Australians on the basis of their religious faith and activities, and this is a welcome development, implementing a recommendation of the Ruddock Review which reported in 2018.

The government previously released two “Exposure Drafts” of the Bill (see some comments on those in previous posts, here, and here.) Having promised prior to the last election that he would advance this law, Prime Minister Morrison will now introduce it into the House of Representatives. If passed by the House, the Bill will then need to approved by the Senate, where it seems likely to be referred to (yet another) committee before being voted on there, probably sometime in the New Year.

In this post I will aim to provide an overview of the Bill, and also to indicate briefly where it differs from previous drafts.

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