Faith-based schools across the country will see their ability to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation guaranteed, if the Federal government puts into effect one of the recommendations made by a religious freedom panel.
The review’s key proposal calls for the Federal Sex Discrimination Act to be amended in order to create a national framework codifying how schools can lawfully discriminate against gay students, when the discrimination is founded on religious protection grounds.
“There is a wide variety of religious schools in Australia and … to some school communities cultivating an environment and ethos which conforms to their religious beliefs is of paramount importance,” the report notes.
Sections of the report – which was set up last year following the same-sex marriage victory, in what was reportedly an attempt to satisfy those concerned it would restrict free practice of religion – were obtained by Fairfax Media this week.
On Wednesday, PM Scott Morrison stated that the proposals put forward would be taken into consideration by the Cabinet, before “developing a balanced response” and stressed that “it’s a report to government, not from government”.
In his statement Mr Morrison insisted that the key recommendation was “not a change” as existing legislation allows for the discrimination.
The 1984 Act was lastly updated in 2012 under the Labor government, permitting religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy, when “in good faith” to avoid harming religious sensitivities, but the application of this exception varies across states and territories.
More than 15,000 submissions were received for the review conducted by a panel led by NSW Liberal Party president and former attorney-general Phillip Ruddock.
The report, handed to former PM Malcolm Turnbull in May, is yet to be released. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has asked for the report to be made public prior to the upcoming Wentworth byelection for voters to consider, while Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek termed the key recommendation a “disturbing proposition”.
“What kind of adult wants to turn away a child, wants to reject a kid because they are gay?” Ms Plibersek told the ABC.
Meanwhile, in a statement to Sky News Special Minister of State Alex Hawke spoke in defence of religious schools’ right to discriminate against students, labelling it an “absolutely” acceptable recommendation.
“I don’t think it’s controversial in Australia that people expect religious schools to teach the practice of their faith and their religion.”
Publicly supportive of the proposal was also a prominent figure of the ‘Yes’ campaign, director of legal advocacy at Human Rights Law Centre, Anna Brown saying this could replace a gap in federal legislation with regards to religious belief protection.
CONCERNS SPECIFIC TO MULTICULTURAL COMMUNITIES
But advocates from the LGBTQI+ community oppose the recommendation, saying it has already fuelled distress and will cause further harm if put into effect.
Deakin University academic and member of the Australian LGBTIQ Multicultural Council (AGMC) Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli expresses concerns specific to ethnic communities.
“These policy revisions are not allowing for the complexity of ethnicity and not taking into account ethnic migrant communities whose members want to be out with their sexuality and want to practice their religion. Why should they have to give up a part of their self?” Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli told Neos Kosmos.
“It’s going to be very distressing not just for the young person who’s coming out, but also because the family of that child might not be able to understand or might be swayed by those arguments and not support their children.”
Within her capacity at AGMC, Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli is working with members of diverse communities including Greek, Italian, Asian and African. She says that they have already started receiving calls and emails from young people who present anxious in light of the news and cautions that the proposed legislation move could make children feel there is something “religiously wrong” with them.
“Whether it’s Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish – and I work with gay people from all those faiths and their families – […] a religious faith is about love, duty of care, supporting your children. This crosses every religion and this kind of policy totally contradicts these values.”
Notably, the Ruddock report also contains provisions to the recommendation of amending the Sex Discrimination Act, saying that it should only concern new enrolments, that the school should make parents aware of their stance through a publicly available policy, and that discretion to discriminate would be guided primarily by the best interests of the child.
But according to Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli, the provisions are “contradictory”.
“We believe it’s a way of trying to get around the discrimination and it doesn’t address the bigger issue.
“What about those kids who are not out to their family and they go to a school for protection and education and understanding, what happens if say there is a Greek family and the kid wants to go to an Orthodox school because religion is important to them?”
It is yet unclear how this proposal will be met by Greek schools around Australia, however there is no indication that it would affect the Greek Community of Melbourne’s schools in any way.
“The GCM in practice is a secular organisation and its schools have a secular agenda,” says Nick Dallas, speaking to Neos Kosmos on behalf of the GCM’s Education Committee. “If there is a religious dimension to the Community, it’s based on historical and cultural reasons, and we continue to maintain this in a respectful way. With regards to proposals to allow religious schools to have the freedom to turn away gay children and teachers, we find these inappropriate and totally unwarranted. It can only lead to less tolerance and further discriminatory practices.”
Neos Kosmos contacted the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and will print the church’s official response in future publications.