LGBTIQ+ STUDENT RIGHTS AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION
In October 2018, the ABCs Matthew Doran reported leaked religious freedom panel recommendations which were presented to the Government in May.
Members of the religious freedoms panel included Christian Phillip Ruddock, Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and Australian Jesuit priest Frank Brennan.
--Central to the recommendations was formalising the ability for religious schools to turn away gay students on a consistent national scale.
--The legislative provisions allowing religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status would be made consistent around the country.
--Schools would have to publicly outline their policy on the matter, and the measures could only be used in expelling current students if their parents were warned of the school's policy prior to enrolment.
Special Minister of State, Alex Hawke described allowing religious schools to discriminate against students as an "absolutely" acceptable proposal.
"I don't think it's controversial in Australia that people expect religious schools to teach the practice of their faith and their religion, That's the point of a religious school, and in Australia you have choice of schooling — you have the public system, you have the private and independent system, and you have religious and faith-based schools."
Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek says this was a "disturbing proposition".
In the last sitting week of Parliament in December 2018, Prime Minister presented a ‘Bill’ on the issue, previously unsighted and unheard of, and demanded Labor accept this Bill and pass it before the end of the sitting week.
Labor rejected the Morrison bill on the grounds that it would exchange one form of discrimination for another.
After the Parliament had risen for the year, the Prime Minister announced on December 13th a proposal for a dedicated Religious Discrimination Act to the next election.
He also announced that the federal Coalition
• has accepted around 15 of the 20 recommendations of the review, including a dedicated piece of legislation to enshrine protections for religion.
Another Morrison proposal for a Religious Discrimination Commissioner to handle religious discrimination complaints was not recommended by the Ruddock review.
The Prime Minister's language when announcing this new policy was precise and targeted — he was keen to argue it was central to Australia's multicultural identity.
Mr Morrison pointed out that religious belief is higher among some migrant groups.
"If you support a multicultural Australia, you'll be a supporter of religious freedoms. You'll understand that religious faith is synonymous with so many different ethnic cultures in Australia. Seventy per cent of Australians identify as having a particular religious belief. Much has been made of the fact that the 30 per cent of those who don't has been growing. That's a description of the diversity that exists in Australian society. If you look at some of our largest, our most long-established, as well as some of our most recent arrivals to Australia, the proportion of those in those communities expressing an identification with a religious belief is far higher."
A Political Football ?
One of the ironies of these Morrison announcements about a ‘Religious Discrimination Act’ and the appointment of a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ is that these are no more than proposals which would not be put into place or defined clearly for the voting public until after the 2019 election.
The same ‘kick the can into the long grass’ approach was apparent in the Governments’ announcement that it would
“continue to consult with the states and territories on the five recommendations it has yet to agree to”.
These five outstanding recommendation matters would also be “referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission for advice due in the second half of 2019".
One of those five issues, how to deal with potential discrimination against LGBTIQ+ students at religious schools from discrimination, will not be finally resolved until at least ‘"the second half of 2019"’, long after the 2019 federal election.
On Friday December 14th, ABC report Patricia Karvelas reported
“There is despair from some MPs who say with the federal election so close and the Government so on the nose with voters, the last thing they need is a polarising and divisive debate about religious freedom”.
The Prime Minister sought to frame the debate away from legislation which would appease conservative white Christians will to further entrench the legal right to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ people in schools, bakeries, wedding planners businesses and many other sites.
Rather, the Prime Minister was very keen to reframe this reality as a debate about ‘national diversity’ and ‘religious freedom’, citing ABS statistics showing 70 percent of Australians claim attachment to some form of ‘religion’.
Australian Labor Party Policy
Labor has been careful and strategic in its response, avoiding rebuking the Prime Ministers proposal.
Instead Labor continue to argue the urgency of the protection of gay students. Labor will not oppose the concept of a religious freedom act per se but strategists say the devil will be in the detail.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten attempted to neutralise the issue of religious freedom by stating he is open to the idea of a Religious Freedom Act.
This careful approach may be due to the electorate reality that the high proportion of people who voted no in the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Labor-held seats in western Sydney.
There were 17 no-voting electorates in Australia, all with a significant immigrant and ethnic diversity presence. Twelve were in western Sydney with nine of those twelve held by Labor MPs.