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.
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.
An extraordinary claim before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal recently, Secular Party of Australia Inc. v the Department of Education and Training (Human Rights)  VCAT 1321 (27 August 2018), alleged that a child at a public school should be prevented from wearing Islamic religious garb in the child’s own interests! Thankfully the claim failed, but the fact that the case could even be argued illustrates the pressure that some groups on society are placing on parents and children of faith.
Today the Rev the Hon Fred Nile, for the Christian Democrat Party, introduced a Bill to add “religious beliefs or religious activities” into NSW legislation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms) Bill 2018 will add new Parts 3B and 5A into the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) (“ADA”), making it unlawful in various areas to discriminate on the grounds of religion, or to subject religious bodies to a detriment. The proposals will also make it unlawful to penalise someone for holding views on marriage as the union of a man or a woman, or for holding the view that there are only two genders.
Can a Christian secondary school require that its teachers not openly advocate a sexual lifestyle that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching? Can an Orthodox Jewish preschool ask its teachers to live in accordance with Orthodox moral principles? Can a Protestant church refuse to hire someone to act on its behalf in political advocacy when that person does not share their religious beliefs?
These are all issues that have come up in recent months. Two of them are dealt with in decisions in connection with judicial proceedings, one in the UK and one from the European Court of Justice. One has been raised by media reports in Australia. In this post I want to flag these three cases briefly and to comment on the issues they raise for religious freedom, and how they should be resolved.
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.