The Australian Law Reform Commission has now released a Consultation Paper for its current reference on “Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws”. The paper, while formally acknowledging the importance of religious freedom and parental rights, will be a serious disappointment to those involved in religious schools and colleges. It effectively recommends the removal of protections enjoyed by religious educational institutions which have been designed to safeguard the ability of these organisations to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs. The “fences” protecting these bodies from being forced to conform to majority views on sexual behaviour and identity (and hence losing their distinctiveness as religious bodies) are to be knocked down, the ALRC says. But the paper offers no convincing reasons for this wholesale demolition of a structure which has served the diversity and plurality of the Australian community for many years. Rather than supporting “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”, the paper’s recommendations would require a compulsory uniformity which would undermine the reasons for the existence of faith-based educational institutions.
ALRC inquiry into Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws
The Commonwealth Attorney-General has announced that the Australian Law Reform Commission will be conducting an inquiry into the general area of “Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws”. Detailed information about the inquiry can be seen at their home page.
Readers may recall that the ALRC had previously been given a wider inquiry by the former government: the web-page notes that
The Terms of Reference replace a previous Inquiry into religious exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation that has been on hold since March 2020.
This new inquiry, while narrower in terms of being limited to religious educational institutions, comes with a number of assumptions that some may find problematic:
The Terms of Reference describe the Government’s commitments as ensuring ‘that an educational institution conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed:
- must not discriminate against a student on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
- must not discriminate against a member of staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
- can continue to build a community of faith by giving preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of staff’.
The Commission has indicated that it will have regard to submissions made to the previous inquiry, but that it also “will undertake further consultations”. Organisations and individuals who are interested in making submissions to the inquiry (when public submissions are called for) can “subscribe” to email updates from the ALRC here. Given that the inquiry has quite a tight timeline (it is due to report on 21 April 2023) I suspect that submissions may need to be put together fairly quickly over the Christmas/New Year period.
The ALRC has now released a consultation timetable (which can be seen here) which indicates that they will be releasing a discussion paper for general comments on 27 January 2023, to which responses need to be provided by 24 February 2023.
Legal issues arising for Christian schools in NSW
I recently presented a paper exploring legal issues arising for Christian schools in NSW, which I thought may be of general interest. It also discusses developments in other Australian jurisdictions which may have an impact on NSW law in the future. The paper can be downloaded here:
First volume of Australian Journal of Law and Religion published
Great to see that the first volume of the Australian Journal of Law and Religion has been published: see here. All articles are free to download. Congratulations to editors Alex Deagon and Jeremy Patrick on this new venture! I am honoured to have an article in this first issue on “Religious Freedom, Section 109 of the Constitution, and Anti-discrimination Laws”.
For convenience, here is a copy of the first table of contents:
Law and Religion in the Classroom: Teaching Church-State Relationships: Renae Barker
The Formation of Islamic Law in Indonesia: The Interplay Between Islamic Authorities and the State: Muhammad Latif Fauzi
Religious Freedom, Section 109 of the Constitution, and Anti-discrimination Laws: Neil Foster
Why the Jury in Pell v The Queen Must Have Had a Doubt and the High Court was Right to Quash the Guilty Verdicts: Andrew Hemming
Adolescent Gender Identity and the Sex Discrimination Act: The Case for Religious Exemptions: Patrick Parkinson
Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World by Greg Sheridan: Katie Murray
Law and Religion in the Liberal State edited by Md Jahid Hossain Bhuiyan and Darryn Jensen: Jeremy Patrick
Special Topic Forum: The Future of Law and Religion in Australia
The Continued Existence of the Crime of Blasphemy in Australia: Luke Beck
Proportionality in Australian Constitutional Law: Next Stop Section 116?: Anthony Gray
The Liberal and Post-Liberal Futures of Law and Religion in Australia: Joel Harrison
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.
Clarifying “transgender hate speech”
An important appeal decision in November 2021, Rep v Clinch  ACAT 106 (3 November 2021), provides significant clarification on what amounts to “transgender hate speech”, and what does not, under the law of Australian Capital Territory- and provides a helpful and persuasive set of reasons which may be influential in other jurisdictions. Is it unlawful to say that “a trans woman is a man”? Not according to the Appeal Tribunal in the Rep decision- see . While none of the relevant parties seem to have referred to religious reasons for their comments, the question of what can be lawfully said in public contexts about issues raised by the “gender identity” debates has some importance for religious groups which take the view that religious texts teach that sex is determined at birth, not fluid, and not able to be changed.
Fined for declining to make a “transgender cake”
A Colorado District Court has handed down a decision imposing a penalty on a cake-maker for declining to provide a cake designed to celebrate a “gender transition”, in Scardina v Masterpiece Cakeshop Inc (Denver District Ct, Co; 19CV32214, 15 June 2021). If the name of the shop sounds familiar, it will be to those interested in “law and religion” issues in recent years. Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakes business were previously sued, all the way to the US Supreme Court, because he had declined to make a cake designed to celebrate a same-sex wedding (for my comment on the Supreme Court decision, see “Colorado Wedding Cake Baker wins before US Supreme Court” (June 5, 2018). Sadly it seems that Mr Phillips will need to appeal this latest decision as well.
Belief that sex is immutable can be a protected belief
The view that biological sex is immutable and that a man cannot become a woman is, of course, controversial today. But in a very welcome decision, the UK Employment Appeal Tribunal in Forstater v CGD Europe  UKEAT 0105_20_1006 (10 June 2021) has now overturned a previous single judge decision, and ruled that such a belief is “worthy of protection” as a “philosophical belief” under UK discrimination law. The decision, while not based on religious belief, will have important implications for protection of religious freedom in the UK, and hopefully in other parts of the world as well.
Victoria’s Conversion Practices Bill is as bad as they say it is
Many commentators concerned with free speech and religious freedom have expressed serious concerns about the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 (Vic), now awaiting its second reading debate in the Victorian Legislative Council (which could resume on February 2, having swiftly passed all stages in the Legislative Assembly on 10 December 2020). Others who are sympathetic to the aims of the Bill have suggested that these concerns are over-stated- that the relevant criminal offences created by the Act are only applicable where “harm” or “serious harm” can be shown to a criminal standard, and hence that there will be few such cases. For example, an editorial from The Age which supports the Bill says:
It is important to note the government’s assurance that only in cases where such practices could be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to have caused injury or serious injury would they be considered offences under this legislation.The Age, Editorial, Dec 8, 2020
But the scope of this legislation goes well beyond the specific “injury” offences that are created (while these are problematic enough.) The Bill creates a powerful set of bureaucratic mechanisms by which religious groups presenting the classic teachings of their faith may be subject to investigation and “re-education” by human rights officers. It arguably makes the presentation of some aspects of Biblical teaching unlawful if the aim of that teaching is to encourage someone to follow that teaching in their own life. Despite the appearance of addressing horrific and oppressive quasi-psychological procedures inflicted on young people, the Bill goes well beyond this laudable goal, and will make it unlawful to provide assistance in obeying the Bible to those who explicitly and with full understanding request such help. Enactment of this legislation would be a serious mistake.
Health Professionals and the Law: Protecting Practice According to Conscience
I am delivering a paper to the Newcastle branch of the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship of Australia on Monday 21 September from 7 pm. A copy of the paper is here: