Transgender discrimination law in Australia- uncertainties

It is not uncommon to find popular assertions , in relation to the legal treatment of transgender persons, that the law requires that a person who asserts they are of a different gender to their biological sex, be allowed to use bathrooms set aside for their chosen gender, or that they have a “right” to be addressed by the pronoun corresponding to that gender. In this post I want to point out that it seems quite arguable that the law in most of Australia does not have this effect. (I will comment briefly on recent changes in Tasmania which may have, though even there, the question is debatable.)

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Sperm donor recognised as father

This week the High Court of Australia handed down a fascinating decision on the question as to whether a sperm donor can be recognised as the legal parent of a child born through artificial insemination. In Masson v Parsons [2019] HCA 21 (19 June 2019) the court ruled that the answer was “Yes”. While the case doesn’t directly involve “law and religion” issues, the question of parental status in assisted reproduction methods is one of great interest in religious communities, so it seems worthwhile to set out the reasoning of the court. And as I will aim to show, there is an interesting possible sideline to the court’s decision which may impact other “status” questions which arise under Australian law, which may be significant for religious views on matters such as marriage and sexual identity.

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Religious Freedom amendments introduced in NSW

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.

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Australia adopts same sex marriage: law and religion implications

Legislation re-defining marriage to include same sex couples passed its final third reading stage in the Commonwealth House of Representatives this evening Australian time, December 7. The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 will soon become law when it receives the Royal Assent. In this post I want to start exploring some immediate implications for religious freedom and other “law and religion” issues.

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Birth certificate alteration for a married person?

A recent decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that the Australian government is in breach of its human rights obligations, by not providing for a person who has “transitioned” from male to female, to have their birth certificate amended. The reason that this request has been refused is that the person, “G”, was married to a woman, and NSW law does not allow the birth certificate of a married person to be amended. In my view this provision of NSW law is perfectly sensible (given that Australia does not recognise same sex marriage), and I have to say that I think the UNHRC has got this wrong.

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Update on 2016 Law and Religion issues and preview for 2017

It seems a good time of the year to take stock of the current status of some important Law and Religion issues discussed this year, and to flag some upcoming issues for the New Year.

A. Same Sex Marriage

1. Making the change in Australia?

As previously noted, the Government’s foreshadowed plebiscite on whether marriage should be redefined to extend the status to same-sex couples will probably not be going ahead, given the legislation was defeated in the Senate. Someone living under a rock for a year or so, reading that comment, might have supposed that this meant there was a “conservative” majority in the Upper House which was opposed to the change. Of course the opposite is ironically the case; the generally conservative Liberal/National Coalition were putting forward the plebiscite as a way of achieving the change (a change supported by the current Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers), but the legislation was defeated by an informal coalition of “progressive” parties and independents who would also like to see the change made, but seem to fear that the majority of the Australian people might not agree with them. (To be fair, the stated reason for opposition was the impact of the plebiscite on same sex attracted persons. There is a lot of debate about whether such an impact was likely, given, for example, positive comments about the referendum on the same matter in Ireland.)

Their strategy now is to seek in 2017 to somehow put pressure on the Government to allow a “conscience” vote on the matter in the Parliament. Again, this is full of irony. The major opposition party, the ALP, has in fact formally ruled out a “conscience” vote on the issue for their own members after the next election, one of whom at least has been forced to resign over the matter. But they are in favour of a conscience vote for their political opponents, banking on the fact that enough of them disagree with their party’s current policy to provide a majority in both the lower and upper Houses of Parliament.

The major problem with this strategy is that the current Government were elected, and in particular it seems clear that the current Prime Minister was elected as leader by his party, on the basis that the only way the reform could be made was if it were supported at a plebiscite of the Australian public. Unless some individual MP’s could be persuaded to break with the party and cross the floor, it seems unlikely that the current Government will support a mere Parliamentary vote.

Where this leaves the issue at the next election is still unclear. Will the Government change its platform? Its majority at the moment is wafer-thin, and it might be thought that there are a number of sitting members who are both popular enough in their electorates to win even without party endorsement, and passionately opposed to changing the traditional meaning of marriage, to make any attempt to change policy on the issue very dangerous. Of course it seems that if the ALP wins office the change would be made- but again, the Australian electorate (consciously or not) tends to not give their Governments a Senate majority, and so there could be no guarantees that an ALP government could get same sex marriage legislation through the Senate. All in all, interesting times.

2. Protecting Religious Freedom if there is a change

Should same sex marriage be introduced, one of the major concerns of religious groups and individual believers is whether religious freedom in this area will be protected. I have summarised many of these issues in a paper delivered earlier this year (and you can even watch a video of the presentation should you now be over being “entertained” by Christmas fare!) In short, there are some protections for religious freedom provided in the draft amending legislation which was intended to be presented if the plebiscite had succeeded. But in my view the protections in the draft Bill did not go far enough.

In fact, for those who are interested in this area, the Senate before breaking up this year for Christmas appointed a Select Committee to look into the Bill: the “Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill“. It invites submissions on the Bill by the very tight deadline of 13 January 2017. I encourage folk to have a look and see if there are things they want to draw to the attention of the Committee. (I have made a submission already; the general matters raised were similar to those I mentioned in my previous blog post on the draft legislation.)

One of the areas where there will be continued debate on the issues is the ability of ordinary believers in the “wedding industry” to decline to offer services in support of same sex ceremonies. I mention the current status of a couple of these cases overseas below. While I feel I have said this many times before, since those who distort the motives of believers involved in this case continue to do so, it bears repeating: the people involved in these cases are not arguing for a general right to deny all services to same sex attracted persons! They are simply saying that, when they are asked to engage their creative skills in a specific way, in celebration of a same sex relationship which their religion tells them is contrary to God’s will, they cannot do so. That is an area which will continue to be contested.

3. Wedding Industry cases

On this blog I have previously mentioned a number of cases where believers have been sued and required to pay damages, or undergo “training”, because they have declined to provide services for a same sex ceremony. Three of those cases are still before the courts at a high level and further proceedings are likely in 2017.

(a) The Ashers “Gay Cake” case

I discussed the latest substantive court proceedings (in October) in this case, where Belfast bakers have been penalised for not providing a cake with a motto and picture in support of same sex marriage, previously. After the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal upheld an order for damages imposed on the bakers (and note that no actual wedding was involved, this cake was simply requested for a political event urging that the law be changed!), that court on 21 dec 2016 formally denied an application for leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court. However, the Ashers still have a right to make their own application for leave to appeal, direct to the Supreme Court, and they have indicated that they will be doing so in the New Year.

My take is that the Supreme Court, if it grants leave to appeal, may well overturn the decisions of the Northern Irish courts. The many press articles, even from normally “progressive” outlets, decrying the decision illustrate that many people feel that this is a case where free speech is being attacked without the justification of it causing specific emotional or other harm to a couple planning to be married. The fact that the decision was even challenged by the Northern Ireland Attorney-General demonstrates this as well. Still, there is always some uncertainty in this area, so it will be very interesting to see the outcome.

(b) The “Hands On Originals” Gay T-shirt case

A decision from the US which was handed down some time ago concerns similar issues. In  Hands on Originals, Inc v Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission (Fayette Circuit Court, Civil Branch, 3rd Div, Ky; Civil Action No 14-CI-04474; James D Ishmael Jr, J; 27 April 2015), a T-shirt printer was found to be entitled to decline to support a message of “Gay Pride” (see my previous comment in “Cakes, t-shirts and religious freedom- an update“, April 28, 2015). This was one of the few such cases in the US where the religious freedom of the service provider had been protected; again, like the Ashers case, it did not involve an actual same sex ceremony, so was more clearly a case of free speech being challenged with a failure to support a popular cause.

Despite the length of time since the original decision, an appeal against this decision was heard on Dec 13, 2016 before the Kentucky Court of Appeals- see here for the excellent resource centre on the case supplied by ADF, the attorneys acting for the small business. This local news report suggests that the appeal decision may be handed down within 90 days.

(c) The Masterpiece cake case

In Craig v Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc., ___ P3d ___, ___, 2015 WL 4760453, *6, 2015 Colo App LEXIS 1217, *15-18 [2015] the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the decision of a lower tribunal to impose a penalty on Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, for declining to produce a cake for a same sex commitment ceremony. To quote the ADF summary:

That decision ordered Jack Phillips and his staff at Masterpiece Cakeshop to create cakes for same-sex celebrations. The decision also ordered Phillips to comply with Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act by re-educating his staff and filing quarterly “compliance” reports for two years.

After the Colorado Supreme Court by majority refused to accept an application for leave to appeal, a petition for a “writ of certiorari” (request for leave to appeal) was filed with the US Supreme Court on 22 July 2016. The petition has not yet been heard, and this may mean that it will need to be dealt with by the Supreme Court after the next appointment is made by the incoming Trump administration. The latest information from a key Supreme Court tracking blog indicates that the case might be discussed at a “conference” considering pending petitions on Jan 6, 2017, but it seems very unlikely that it will be disposed of before the new administration takes over. Who will be the 9th Justice appointed to replace Scalia J, of course, is unknown, but it seems likely that it will be a “conservative”, and hence there may be a majority on the Court to at least give the appeal a hearing.

B. Religious Freedom generally

Protection of religious freedom, of course, is a much broader issue than what may flow from recognition of same sex marriage. Here I just mention briefly some updates on previous matters, and another Parliamentary inquiry.

1. Updates on transgender rights issues

In my earlier blog, “Bathrooms and discrimination” (April 24, 2016) I mentioned that the State of North Carolina had generated controversy by passing legislation, generally called “HB2” (officially the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (“PFPSA”)), specifying that in multiple occupancy public bathrooms only those whose birth certificated indicated they were male, could use male bathrooms, and only those whose birth certificates indicated they were female, could use female bathrooms. This legislation was in response to an ordinance passed by the city council of Charlotte, the capital, which required all bathrooms to be available, apparently,  to all genders. In particular it was seen as allowing those who “identify” as a gender opposite to their biological sex to use the bathroom set apart for that gender, regardless of whether they had undergone surgical or other treatments to allow their birth certificate to be changed. (While many may object to these laws, in particular these sort of laws raise long-term religious freedom issues for believers in religious traditions such as Christianity, which clearly states that male and female are exclusive categories and should not be confused.)

In recent days, after an election which saw a Democrat Governor take office in North Carolina, there were negotiations between the city council and the State legislature after which a deal seems to have been reached that the city would repeal the relevant changes to its ordinance, and the State would repeal HB2. However, recent press reports suggest that while the city has repealed its ordinance, the legislature in a special session leading up to Christmas could not agree to repeal the Act: see “HB2 Stays: North Carolina Lawmakers Decline to Repeal Controversial Anti-LGBTQ ‘Bathroom’ Bill” (Dec 21, 2016). Clearly the debates will continue- there seems to be some indication that the repeal of the city ordinance was conditional on the legislation being repealed by Dec 31, so the whole debate may be re-ignited in the New Year.

In that earlier blog post I also mentioned litigation, G G v Gloucester County School Board, in which an injunction had been granted to require a local school to allow a student born biologically female, who now identified as male, to use the boy’s bathroom (see this decision of the United States Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit, handed down on April 19, 2016). However, on August 3, 2016 the US Supreme Court issued a “stay” order halting the implementation of the lower court’s injunction while a petition for certiorari (application for leave to appeal) is being considered. This slightly unusual step suggests that at least four of the current 8 Justices consider the appeal to have merit. The current schedule for hearings means, as noted at the Supreme Court monitor “SCOTUSblog”, that the application for certiorari may not now be heard until March or April ( “increasing the chances that a ninth justice may have taken the bench by the time the case is argued.”) In addition, since the case revolves around an interpretation of a statute provided by an Obama administration official, the arrival of the new administration on January 20 may see that interpretation changed, and the matter may then need to be referred back to the lower courts to account for the change.

Clearly the question of transgender rights is going to continue to be a major issue in the coming year, in the US, the UK and in Australia. For those who are interested in some resources which outline the issues and present important scientific information challenging some of the common popular assumptions about this area, I recommend the following for further reading:

  • for Australia, where the so-called “safe schools” program continues to generate controversy, an important paper by Professor Patrick Parkinson from Sydney Law School reviews the literature: see “The Controversy over the Safe Schools Program – Finding the Sensible Centre” (September 14, 2016). Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 16/83. Available at SSRN: or
  • from the UK, a recent paper from the Christian Institute helpfully outlines many of the issues: see “Transsexualism” (2016), with a link at the end to supporting literature;
  • released earlier in the year, this lengthy study from the journal New Atlantis (Fall, 2016) “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological and Social Sciences“, by Dr Lawrence S Meyer and Dr Paul R McHugh, is a goldmine of a literature review on the area. From the summary: “this report shows that some of the most frequently heard claims about sexuality and gender are not supported by scientific evidence. The report has a special focus on the higher rates of mental health problems among LGBT populations, and it questions the scientific basis of trends in the treatment of children who do not identify with their biological sex. More effort is called for to provide these people with the understanding, care, and support they need to lead healthy, flourishing lives.”
  • and from Australia again, an important paper by Professor John Whitehall from Western Sydney University: “Gender Dysphoria and Surgical Abuse” Quadrant (Dec 2016).

2. Another important Parliamentary Inquiry

Finally, worth noting that the Federal Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is conducting a summer inquiry, “Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief“. The terms of reference are very broad:

The Committee shall examine the status of the freedom of religion or belief (as recognised in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) around the world, including in Australia. The Committee shall have particular regard to:

  1. The enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief globally, the nature and extent of violations and abuses of this right and the causes of those violations or abuses;
  2. Action taken by governments, international organisations, national human rights institutions, and non-government organisations to protect the freedom of religion or belief, promote religious tolerance, and prevent violations or abuses of this right;
  3. The relationship between the freedom of religion or belief and other human rights, and the implications of constraints on the freedom of religion or belief for the enjoyment of other universal human rights;
  4. Australian efforts, including those of Federal, State and Territory governments and non-government organisations, to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia and around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.

The inquiry should have regard to developments since the Committee last reported on Australia’s efforts to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief in November 2000.

The nature of the Committee, and aspects of the terms of reference, suggest that overseas developments are its main focus. However, it also includes Australia as part of its remit. These are important topics, and again there is a tight deadline for submissions to close, on Friday, 10 February 2017. I will be aiming to put in a submission, and I encourage others to do so as well.

Well, this “brief” review has already been too long, so I will finish there and wish all those who read all the best for the New Year, when it looks like there will continue to be lots of material on Law and Religion to talk about!

Three controversial Victorian bills defeated

A brief update on the status of some proposed Victorian legislation I have previously mentioned as being a bad idea. It is good to see that all three bills have been defeated in the Victorian Parliament. Two of them would have interfered with the running of religious schools, as well as other religious organisations. The third would have created a range of problems in its interaction with Federal marriage law. 

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Legal problems with Victoria’s new birth certificate gender laws

The Victorian Government has introduced a Bill, the Births Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016, to amend its law on birth certificates to allow changing the gender on the certificate to be made easier. (The Bill was approved by the Lower House on 15 Sept 2016 and is awaiting consideration by the Legislative Council.) There are many problems with the policy represented by this legislation (see a good summary from Murray Campbell, “Victorian Government and Birth Certificates” Oct 26, 2016)). But what I want to focus on here is the interaction of the new law with the law on marriage. In my view the law will create a host of legal uncertainties at best, and is quite likely to be unable to achieve its apparent aim of allowing Victorians born in one sex to live for all purposes as if they were of the other sex.

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“Exemptions” in discrimination laws applying to churches

Australia is in the midst of a Federal election campaign at the moment (thankfully, one which will end on July 2, unlike the one being endured by our friends in the United States, which seems to stretch on interminably!) But law and religion has now emerged as one of the election issues.

This time the question is not about same-sex marriage (SSM), although the various parties’ views on that topic are well-known (at the moment, the Australian Labour Party (ALP) has promised to introduce SSM within 100 days if elected, and the Liberal-National Party Coalition, currently in power, has promised to put the matter to a plebiscite after the election if they are returned.) But the latest question has been raised by a minority, but increasingly influential, Greens Party, which has included as part of its election platform a promise to remove “religious exemptions to federal anti-discrimination law“.

At the moment the Opposition ALP (which is fairly closely aligned to the left-wing Greens on many points) has not made a similar promise, but has noted that it will

review the carve-outs in Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, with [Opposition Leader] Bill Shorten leaving open the door to removing further exemptions for religious institutions.

The official ALP electoral platform contains the following promise (in Chapter 9, on p 139):

196. Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.

In this post I want to briefly review what “exemptions” are being mentioned here, and argue that watering down or removing this provisions (these “balancing clauses”) would be unnecessary to achieve the ALP’s stated aims, and in general a bad idea.

Balancing Clauses in Discrimination Law

Since the current issue has arisen in a Federal election, I will mainly focus on Federal law (although the issues and their resolution are similar in most States and Territories.) In fact, the primary “exemptions” that the Greens and the ALP are referring to are those contained in one Act, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (SDA). (Interestingly, there are few if any religious balancing clauses in the other Federal discrimination legislation, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, disability, and age. These have not been areas where mainstream religions have usually sought exemptions.)


First, a question of terminology. What their opponents tend to call “exemptions” to discrimination law are, in my opinion, best described another way. To explain this I would like to quote some extracts from a paper I presented at a conference in Oxford in 2015:

 [R]eligious freedom is recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art 18):

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his [or her] choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [or her] religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

While it is clear that the “internal dimension” of religious freedom is absolutely protected, it is equally clear that the “external dimension” of the freedom, that is, the freedom to manifest one’s religion and act on one’s religious beliefs, may be subject to limitations in certain circumstances. A fundamental feature of “rights” of any sort, of course, is that, where they are given to more than one person, there is the potential for conflict. Any “freedom” given to a person to do something, will usually involve a “duty” on another person’s part to allow them to do it, even if it interferes with some other freedom or right of that person. Whether it is appropriate for one person’s right to be protected over and above another person’s right or interest requires a consideration of how competing rights and interests are to be appropriately balanced. The need for limitations in certain circumstances on the right to externally manifest one’s religious belief and the need for freedom of religious freedom rights to be balanced with the rights and interests of others is reflected in the ICCPR (art 18(3)):

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

The nature of any human rights system, then, is that it must allow the appropriate “balancing” of rights which may occasionally come into conflict. But there is under international law no “hierarchy” of the fundamental rights protected in the ICCPR, all are equal, including both the right to free exercise of religion, and the right not to be unlawfully discriminated against. So it is not helpful to speak of provisions designed to balance these rights as “exemptions” or “exceptions”. As I go on to say in the paper I mentioned above:

Rather than seeing these “defences” as concessions “wrung out” of a reluctant legislature by some powerful lobby group, as they are sometimes painted in the press, it seems to be a better analysis to see the limits drawn around discrimination laws as an integral part of a structure designed to reflect the relevant human rights as a whole.

Balancing provisions in the SDA

What, then, are the “balancing provisions” contained in the SDA? There is a good summary of these in the report of the Australian Law Reform Commission on “Traditional Rights and Freedoms”. In Chapter 5 the Commission sums up the relevant provisions in the SDA as follows:

5.80     Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws contain exemptions for religious organisations and religious educational institutions. These exemptions apply where the discriminatory act or conduct conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of a religion, or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion. For example, in the SDA, the exemptions include the following:

  • s 23(3)(b), which allows discrimination in the provision of accommodation by religious bodies;
  • s 37, which allows discrimination in the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order, the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment, the appointment of persons to perform religious duties or functions, and any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes that ‘conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion’; and
  • s 38, which allows discrimination by educational institutions established for religious purposes in relation to the employment of staff and the provision of education and training, provided that the discrimination is in ‘good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion’.

These balancing clauses will operate to delimit the area of unlawful discrimination under the SDA, so that behaviour which falls within those provisions will not be unlawful.

The purpose of the various provisions is not spelled out in the legislation, but seems to be as follows:

  • The s 23(3)(b) provision for accommodation recognises the fact that certain religious bodies have a tradition of running single-sex colleges and residential institutions. They do so partly because they have a conviction, based on their religious beliefs, that sex between men and women outside the bond of marriage is wrong, and hence they provide single-sex accommodation to reduce the temptations to engage in wrongful sexual conduct.
    • (It is worth noting in passing that since amendments in 2013, s 23(3A) provides that the exemption of religious organisations in para 23(3)(b) “does not apply to accommodation provided by a religious body in connection with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care”. Hence a religious aged care institution cannot choose to offer single sex residential accommodation, nor can they choose to decline to accept a couple who are living together but not married, or a same sex couple. It is fairly clear that these changes represented an attempt to undermine the general balancing clause provisions by focussing on a purported problem which, to be frank, does not seem to have actually been causing any issues. Still, this “exemption to balancing” provision is now there.)
  • The s 37 provision has mainly been seen as allowing the Roman Catholic Church, and those branches of other churches who read the Bible’s teaching on the point in this way, to decline to appoint women as priests or pastors over congregations. It would also have allowed a religious organisation to decline to appoint to a position of spiritual leadership an unmarried person in a “de facto” relationship (an action otherwise forbidden as “marital status” discrimination), again on the basis of the Bible’s prohibition of sex outside marriage. Since amendment of the SDA in 2013 to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected grounds, it will allow a church to decline to appoint to such a position a person in a same sex sexual relationship (based on the Biblical teaching that homosexual activity is sinful), or someone who is of one biological identity but “identifies” as of another gender. (For a recent overview of why many Christians regard transgender identification as theologically problematic, see this piece by Russell Moore from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the US Southern Baptist Convention.)
    • (Note again that s 37(2) now qualifies this balancing clause in relation to “acts or practices” where the “act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care”. Since most of the examples given in the debate on this issue revolved around the provision of accommodation in aged care institutions, it is hard to know whether s 37(2) adds anything above s 23(3A).)
  • The s 38 provision specifically applies to religiously based private schools, and would allow such schools to decline to engage teachers or staff (either as employees or contractors) where doing so would cause injury to injury to “the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.” Putting aside the somewhat patronising reference to “susceptibilities”, which one may assume is intended to refer to religiously based conscientious objection, this would seem to allow a Roman Catholic school to decline to hire (or to fire) a teacher who was in a de facto relationship, a same sex relationship, or was actively pursuing a gender transition. Under s 38(3) the school would also be allowed to decline to accept an application for enrolment from a student in one of these situations. It would also, presumably, be entitled to insist that students conduct themselves in accordance with Roman Catholic moral standards in behaviour at the school.

Are these provisions justified?

Some will immediately say that the examples provided above show why these provisions should not be allowed to operate. Refusing to employ, or sacking, a teacher because of their private moral choices sounds discriminatory. So does allowing a church to decline to ordain women, or sexually active same sex attracted persons, or transgender persons.

But it seems to me that the provisions are justified on the basis of the strong religious freedom rights recognised in international law mentioned above. If we are concerned about “human rights”, we cannot pick and choose only the ones that make us feel comfortable. Indeed, it is the human rights that have become unpopular and applicable to minorities, which will require all the more careful protection.

Religious persons seek to live their whole lives, not just their time in religious meetings, in service to their God. Those who disagree with those religious views are not required to be a part of the religious community. But for those who are, expression of their commitment to their beliefs will involve decisions about moral issues and the way that they wish to model their religious beliefs to each other and, for schools, to their children.

As Paul Kelly has commented in The Australian (May 18, 2016)

The exemption from anti-discrimination law for religious institutions and schools allows them to retain their religious character. It is a cornerstone for religious freedom in this country.

The fact is that Christian schools, and other religious schools, are aiming to model the life of a whole community with shared religious beliefs (and hence moral values). That is why the commitment of the Maths teacher, or the gardener, or the receptionist, may be just as important as that of the religious studies teacher.

Indeed, the strong moral stance of religious schools is sometimes seen as a reason for those schools to be preferred as educational choices, even by those who don’t share their religious commitments. If we believe in true choice and diversity, then we should be supporting different communities reflecting their values in the way that they provide such things as education, or other social services.

Implications for the political platforms

From what I have said above, I clearly do not support the draconian demands of the Greens to remove all balancing clauses reflecting religious belief from sex discrimination legislation. Religious organisations ought to be able to choose who they appoint as leaders, and who will teach at schools they set up to pass on their religious world view to those who attend. As others have pointed out, the Greens should not be required to appoint someone who is a climate change sceptic as a research assistant or indeed a front desk receptionist. In this area they need to accept that religious beliefs can be just as strongly held, and passionately followed, as political beliefs.

The only area of plausibility that is lent to these claims is where the Government may have chosen to provide some essential social service to members of the public through a religious group, which may then decide to not make that available to a member of the public on the basis of a religious belief. But while this would present many problems, it has to be said that it seems to be a classic “straw man” argument. No homeless person has even been turned away from a religiously run shelter because they are homosexual. No transgender person caught in a natural disaster has ever been refused assistance by the Salvation Army on the basis of their “gender identity”. While religious organisations will naturally seek to employ staff that share the ethos of the group, they are not in the business of denying help to needy people.

For this reason, it seems that the ALP policy is already satisfied, and no change to the law is needed to meet their concerns about “essential social services” being provided.


Religious groups, motivated precisely by their deep commitment to transcendent values, regularly engage in service to the vulnerable members of the community. They establish schools to pass on their deeply held values and moral commitments to the next generation. They run hostels and accommodation designed to reflect the moral values of their members and supporters.

If our society makes it impossible for believers to undertake these activities, by demanding that they conform to the majority views on gender equality and the new sexual identity politics which requires “affirming” sexual choices that their religion says is wrong, then we run the risk of driving believers out of the public square altogether. In doing so we will be denying the fundamental human right of religious freedom, and also losing the value added to our community by believers who serve the needy.