Religious Discrimination Bill passes lower house along with SDA amendment

This morning Australia woke up to the news that at an all-night sitting which concluded around 5 am, the House of Representatives has passed the Religious Discrimination Bill 2022. (The link there will take you to official Parliamentary site for the Bill; as I write the updated version given a third reading has not been published but should be later in the day.) The government amendments which I noted in a previous post were apparently all accepted.

There was an amendment moved by the Opposition which came very close to being accepted, but which in the end did not pass. (It can be seen here in the Opposition amendments document.) It would have introduced a prohibition on “religious vilification”. I do not think Australia needs more such laws; in the time available now let me link a paper I produced a few years ago on the dangers of limiting free speech in this way.

However, the package of bills also includes the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, which saw an Opposition amendment accepted when 5 members of the government crossed the floor. The third reading text of that Bill, which will now go to the Senate with the other bills in the package, is available here. In effect, as had been foreshadowed, the Opposition amendment will repeal s 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (“SDS”). It will also amend s 37 of that Act to ensure that the general balancing clause in that Act cannot be used by religious schools to avoid the effect of the repeal of s 38(3).

Sub-section 38(3) is part of s 38 of the SDA, which allows educational institutions “conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” to act in accordance with those beliefs even if such actions would otherwise amount to unlawful discrimination under the SDA. Sub-section (3) allows such actions “in connection with the provision of education or training”, despite the general prohibition on discrimination in those circumstances set out in s 21 of the Act.

The “presenting problem” was seen to be the possibility that a faith-based school would expel a student on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Leave aside the fact that as far as I am aware no religious school in Australia has ever done this. What s 38(3) provides is a statement that a religious school can operate in teaching and caring for students in accordance with its faith commitments, which is the very reason for its existence! To simply repeal it is, in my view, a bad move.

To give an example: a student group wants to set up a “Pride” club supporting homosexual activity. This is contrary to the teachings of the religion. The school says the club cannot be advertised in the school newsletter or use school premises at lunchtime. Will the school be discriminating under s 21(2)(a) by  (a)  by “denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the [school]”? The answer is not clear. The decision is arguably not made “on the ground of” sexual orientation- the school can say it would deny such a request even if made by a group of heterosexual students. The school may be able to rely on the difference between decisions based on orientation, and decisions based on viewpoints about orientation, which lay behind the successful defence by Christian bakers in the UK who had declined to prepare a “Gay cake” (a decision recently affirmed in the European Court of Human Rights). But to do so it may require expensive and time-consuming litigation.

Other examples can be offered. A senior female prefect becomes pregnant, and is removed from the leadership group because her actions (while unmarried) contradict the school’s religious stance on sexual activity outside marriage. A male student identifies as female and demands to be allowed to use the girl’s change rooms, and is not allowed to. Many people in the community would object to these decisions taken by a school. But others, especially parents who have entrusted their children to these schools so that they can learn in an environment which support their own faith commitments, will support them. In a pluralistic society it seems clear that we should have room for religious communities to operate schools in accordance with their faith, especially when they are prepared to make financial sacrifices to pay for them.

These issues should not be resolved on the run by emotional appeals. The Australian Law Reform Commission is set up to conduct detailed inquiry into the matters, and should be allowed to move ahead with that inquiry to ensure that all relevant interests are heard and properly balanced.

Meanwhile, the package of Bills will now go to the Senate for further debate.

Government amendments to Religious Discrimination bills

Debate in the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament resumed today on the package of bills dealing with religious discrimination. (For general background, see my initial post on the bills here, and recent update on committee reports, here.) The second reading debate continues on Wednesday, I think, but the government has now released two sets of amendments it will be making to the bills. The most controversial will be the amendment to s 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984; the other amendments to the main Religious Discrimination Bill will mostly be uncontroversial and reflect the recommendations of the two Parliamentary committees which recently reported. While the need for the s 38 amendment will continue to be debated, in my view it is targeted at the specific problem previously identified, and will if read in that context not unduly interfere with the operations of religious schools.

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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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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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Victorian Religious Exceptions Amendment Bill introduced

As previously foreshadowed (see my analysis of the proposals when first announced here) the Victorian government has introduced a Bill into the Parliament of that State seriously limiting the religious freedom of religious bodies and individual Victorian citizens. The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 (Vic) was introduced into the Legislative Assembly on October 27 and the second reading was moved on October 28. The Bill is a serious attack on the religious freedom of Victorians, especially to send their children to faith-based schools reflecting a religious world-view.

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Victorian proposals to further limit religious freedom rights

The Victorian government has recently announced proposals to further limit important protections for religious freedom currently applicable to religious persons, bodies and schools in that State. The recent proposals have been put forward as dealing with the problem of religious schools sacking gay teachers, or expelling gay students: see this comment from The Age: “Religious schools in Victoria to lose the right to sack LGBTQ staff” (Sept 16, 2021). However, the details of the proposals hinted at in the recent “Fact Sheet” provided by the government go much further than this. In short, if the government pursues these proposals, they will

  • remove the right of any religious schools to make staffing decisions based on whether or not the staff member agrees with fundamental moral values being taught by the school, by narrowing the grounds on which a staff member can be hired or fired to “religious belief” alone (and it seems from the way this is worded in the document, to mean that this will apply even to someone hired as a “religious studies” teacher!) This rule will also apply to any organisation “providing services funded by the Victorian Government”.
  • impose on all schools and “religious bodies” (however that is defined) a rule that any staffing decision based on religious beliefs must be justified by demonstrating that the “inherent requirements” of the position require such a criterion; the implication being that a secular Victorian tribunal or court will have to determine whether such requirements are applicable by examining the religious beliefs of the body or school for themselves;
  • remove completely the current right enjoyed by private Victorian citizens under s 84 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 not to be sued for discrimination where they can demonstrate that their action was “reasonably necessary… to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of their religion”.

I described these as “further” limits on religious freedom because the Victorian Parliament has recently enacted provisions concerned “conversion practices” which will substantially interfere with the rights of religious persons to teach the doctrines of their faith. (These provisions are due to commence in February 2022). Victoria, despite being one of only a few jurisdictions in Australia to have enacted apparently broad protections for religious freedom in its Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, s 14, continues to treat this right as one which can be downplayed and minimised.

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Religious freedom and knives in school

A debate over the extent of religious freedom laws has arisen in NSW after an incident at a school where one student was stabbed by another, who was wielding a “kirpan”, a religious symbol in the form of a dagger worn by Sikhs. Politicians have expressed surprise that knives are allowed at schools at all, and there has been an announcement on Tuesday 18 May that from Wednesday 19 May there will be a ban implemented. It seems worthwhile to discuss the legal issues.

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Collision of laws: the impact of Commonwealth law on the Victorian CSP law

The Victorian  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 (Vic) (which I will call the “CSP” law for short) passed the Upper House on 4 Feb, 2021. As I write it seems not to have yet received the Royal Assent and become an “Act” but that will no doubt happen soon. The government has signalled that the legislation will not come into operation for another 12 months (see the final sentence in this article.)

My previous posts (see here for the most recent) have expressed grave concerns about the effect of the law on religious freedom and specifically on the freedom of parents and others to encourage children to live in accordance with Biblical standards of sexual behaviour. It is astonishing that the Bill was rushed through Parliament in the face of concerns also being expressed by the Law Institute of Victoria, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). (See this excellent post from Murray Campbell noting these issues.) 

There are, it seems, very few legal avenues available to challenge the many problems created by this law. But in this post I want to suggest one which may be available- where the CSP Law purports to take away rights of religious freedom granted by the Commonwealth Parliament.

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