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.
The UK Supreme Court has now ruled that the Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland was not guilty of sexual orientation discrimination by politely declining to bake a cake decorated with a message in support of same sex marriage- see Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd  UKSC 49 (10 Oct 2018). This is an important decision illustrating the clear difference between a decision based on someone’s personal characteristics, and a refusal to support a specific message.
Trinity Western University, an evangelical tertiary institution in British Columbia, has lost two cases it had brought protesting the decision of two Canadian Provincial Law Societies to not authorise graduates of their proposed Law School as able to practice in the Provinces. The reason for the denial of accreditation was that TWU requires students and staff to agree to a Community Covenant Agreement, which undertakes (among other things) that they will not engage while studying or working at TWU in “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”. The Supreme Court of Canada, in two linked cases, has now held by a 7-2 majority that the Law Societies were justified in their refusal to accredit the TWU Law program, on the basis that any interference with religious freedom was minor, and that the Societies were entitled to take the view that the Covenant requirement imposed “harm” on LGBTQ law students. I disagree with both those conclusions, and believe that the dissenting judgment of Côté and Brown JJ is a far better analysis of the situation.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U. S. ____ (2018) (June 4, 2018), the US Supreme Court by 7-2 overturned previous decisions against a Christian cake maker, Jack Phillips, who had declined to make a wedding cake for a same sex wedding. While the basis of the decision of the majority is fairly narrow, the outcome is clearly correct, and even in the narrow reasons offered by Justice Kennedy, there are a number of important affirmations which support religious freedom.