For those following the debates about proposed amendments to discrimination laws removing religious freedom from faith-based schools, the LNP Government has now tabled a number of amendments to the ALP Bill released earlier this week. While these amendments are a move in the right direction, there are still some serious concerns about their effect on religious schools and their ability to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.
Senator Wong, leader of the Opposition in the Senate, has introduced a Private Senator’s Bill aimed at removing the power of religious schools to discriminate against same sex attracted students. Unfortunately, the amendments do much more than stop schools expelling students on the basis of their internal sexual orientation (a goal all sides of politics agree on.) They will have a serious impact on the ability of such schools, and other religious bodies, to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs. A more nuanced approach is needed.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee (“LCAR Committee”) has now handed down its report into Legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff . The inquiry has been incredibly short- the motion referring the topic was only passed on 13 November. As expected (due to the preponderance of ALP and Greens committee members) the report recommends complete removal of religious freedom protections for faith-based schools relating to how those schools deal with same-sex attracted students. There is a strong dissenting report from Coalition Senators. In my view the majority report would seriously impair the right of faith-based schools to operate in accordance with their religious ethos, and should be rejected by those considering changes to the law.
As foreshadowed in the press reports noted in my previous post, the ACT Government has now introduced a Bill designed to curtail the current religious freedom enjoyed by religious schools in the Territory to operate in accordance with their beliefs. The Discrimination Amendment Bill 2018 (ACT) is an unwise proposal and it is likely that it would be invalid as contrary to Commonwealth law.
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.
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.