A brief update on Parliamentary developments. The Senate debate on the ALP-sponsored Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 took place today. While initially the Bill had been subject to a tight time limit which meant it would have passed today if not actually voted down, at the last minute a Government motion amended this arrangement. The result is as follows:
Debate on this bill will continue at a later date.
It seems that the bill is likely to be referred for consideration to a committee, and the debate will presumably be picked up in the New Year.
There was a similar Bill, however, introduced into the House of Representatives this morning by the Leader of the Opposition. At the moment it is not clear whether this Bill will be debated again this week. More updates will be provided when more is known.
A number of Christian and other religious organisations are deeply concerned about the proposals in the ALP-sponsored private Bill due to be debated in the Senate on Monday Dec 3. As I have discussed in previous comments (here and here) the Bill, which started out as an agreed measure to stop religious schools from expelling gay students on the basis of their “orientation” alone, has a number of other serious consequences for religious freedom, not only for schools but for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious organisations (such as, for example, University student ministries.)
The Bill amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to remove some clauses which have previously provided protection for Christian organisations to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs. It narrows the scope of s 37 of the Act, which has previously exempted religious bodies acting in accordance with their beliefs from being sued for discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. If the Bill in its current form goes through, a Christian student group, for example, may not be legally able to require those who engage in “education” on its behalf (whether at public meetings or in small groups) to teach the Bible’s view on sex or sexual activity. A church may find that its “education” in small groups or in its church services can be challenged as providing “less favourable” treatment to same sex attracted members of the congregation.
As well as my previous comments on this blog, see these other comments from Christian organisations:
I have been asked how concerned citizens can contact their Parliamentary representatives. There is a helpful “contact page” which allows electronic messages to be sent on this Parliament house web page. There is a box to type in your postcode to find out who your local MP is, and the “refine search” menu on this page enables you to identify all the Senators for your State.
Points that could be made include:
- No religious schools want to be able to expel same sex attracted students on the grounds of their sexual orientation alone.
- However, the current ALP-sponsored Bill goes far beyond dealing with this problem, and will seriously reduce the religious freedom of religious schools to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.
- The Bill is also so widely framed that it removes protections for all “religious bodies” in relation to “education”, and this has the potential to make it unlawful for churches, mosques and synagogues to teach the doctrines of their faith to their own members.
- It would be best if legislation was not rushed through at the last minute. Parliament should wait until the Ruddock Report has been released and there is time for careful consideration and consultation before making any amendments in this area.
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.
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.