A recent interesting decision in the State Administrative Tribunal of Western Australia deals with the question whether it is “religious discrimination” for a school to ask students to recite a fortnightly “school creed” containing an optional line mentioning God. The Tribunal decision, Jason Camp on behalf of Charlotte Camp v Director General, Department of Education  WASAT 79 (29 May 2017), sensibly finds that there was no such discrimination.
I am presenting a paper on this topic at the Freedom for Faith “Freedom17” conference in Canberra on Wednesday June 14. The paper is available here: Protecting Religious Freedom in Australia Through Legislative Balancing Clauses. It aims to review all the relevant clauses in discrimination laws in Australia (Commonwealth, State and Territories) which balance religious freedom with the right not to be discriminated against. (If I have missed any, please feel free to let me know!) It also reviews the relevant balancing clauses which were proposed in the Exposure Draft Bill released by the Federal Government last year as an example of how same sex marriage might be recognised. Finally, it explores circumstances in which some of the State and Territory discrimination laws might be invalid, where they provide narrower religious freedom protection than the Commonwealth law does.
Note: this post has been updated in July 2017 to note more recent developments.
Astonishingly, the answer to the question posed here, provided by the Queensland Department of Education and Training was: No! In their latest reviews of material used in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) offered in public schools in that State, they assert as follows:
While not explicitly prohibited by the [relevant legislation], nor referenced in the [Departmental published] RI policy statement, the Department expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.
(This statement is found both in the Report on the Review of the GodSpace Religious Instruction Materials, March 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 5, and in the Report on the Review of the ACCESS ministries’ Religious Instruction Materials, Feb 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 6. Update: the two reviews are also linked on a page headed “Religious instruction policy statement“, which indicates it was updated on 25 May 2017. There seems no doubt that schools would see this as part of authoritative guidance from the Education Department.)
In this post I want to explain why this over-reaching bureaucratic imposition is not justified by the law governing the Department’s activities, and indeed is probably illegal.
A brief update on the status of some proposed Victorian legislation I have previously mentioned as being a bad idea. It is good to see that all three bills have been defeated in the Victorian Parliament. Two of them would have interfered with the running of religious schools, as well as other religious organisations. The third would have created a range of problems in its interaction with Federal marriage law.
The Victorian Government introduced the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 into its Parliament on 30 August 2016. It has passed the Legislative Assembly without amendment, and is presently before the Legislative Council. The Bill proposes the amendment of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) to make it more difficult for a religious body to claim that it is not “discriminating” when it declines to hire, or fires, someone whose behaviour or convictions is contrary to the ethos of the body. The amendments introduce an “inherent requirements” test which must be satisfied in order for such an action to be viewed as falling outside the prohibition in the legislation on detrimental treatment based on “religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity” (the “Victorian prohibited grounds”).
I have commented in a previous post as to why I think this is poor legislation from a policy perspective. In that previous post I briefly noted that an argument could be made that some of the amendments, at least, would be unconstitutional. Since that previous post I have looked into the area further and am fairly sure that this is the case. Here I want to develop the case a bit further.
On 30 August 2016 the Victorian Attorney-General introduced into the Victorian lower house the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016. The Bill proposes to “amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to modify the religious exceptions in relation to the employment of a person by religious bodies and schools”. I would like to suggest that, if enacted, it will fundamentally impair the religious freedom of faith-based organisations. In fact, it might also be found to be constitutionally invalid and of no effect.
The recent decision of the NSW Court of Appeal in Hoxton Park Residents Action Group Inc v Liverpool City Council  NSWCA 157 (5 July 2016) is one of the most important court decisions on the scope of s 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution for some years. The Court held that the Federal Government does not breach the Constitution by “establishing” a religion when it provides funds through the State government to support the operation of a Muslim school. The Court also comments in passing on other important aspects of s 116 to do with “imposing a religious observance” and “prohibiting the free exercise of religion”. In this note I will aim to outline the broad features of the decision, though its full implications will have to be worked out in more detail as time goes on.