No protection for gay students at religious schools at least until 2023

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No protection for gay students at religious schools at least until 2023

By Lisa Visentin

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rebuffed pleas from moderate Liberals to prioritise protections for gay students at faith-based schools alongside the religious freedom bill, as senior Labor frontbencher Penny Wong called for the government to honour both promises at the same time.

Mr Morrison confirmed there would be at least a year-long wait after the passage of the religious bill before the government would legislate to protect gay students, re-committing to an expert review into the issue that will take until early 2023.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected calls from Liberals to move faster to protect gay students from being expelled from religious schools.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected calls from Liberals to move faster to protect gay students from being expelled from religious schools.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“We are waiting for the report from the Australian Law Reform Commission... and my view on that hasn’t changed,” Mr Morrison said on Thursday.

“Gay students should not be expelled from religious schools and nor should gay teachers, who have been employed at those schools, be dismissed if they are gay.”

Mr Morrison said the bill “does nothing to enable such a dismissal”. However the existing Sex Discrimination Act already provides the legal basis for schools to expel students or sack teachers for being gay, and the new bill will not change that. Mr Morrison pledged in 2018 to legislate to remove the exemptions for students but later referred the issue to the ALRC after failing to agree on a deal with the then Labor opposition led by Bill Shorten. The government has requested the ALRC deliver its report 12 months after the passage of the religious discrimination laws.

The bill confirms the right of church schools to make someone’s personal faith a factor in hiring decisions, as long as the school makes its policy and doctrine clear in a public statement. Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said this would bolster “the ability of religious schools to refuse to hire staff that affirm or support them”.

The government’s attempt to refer the bill to a Senate inquiry, which would report back on February 1, was shot down by Labor and the crossbench, with the opposition arguing against the short time frame. There will be more opportunities to establish an inquiry when Parliament returns for the final sittings of the year next week.

The opposition is yet to finalise its position on the bill. Senator Wong, who is gay, said Mr Morrison should honour the commitment to protect gay students and religious freedoms simultaneously.

“If Mr Morrison is genuine about wanting to protect people from discrimination he should act to deliver all of his overdue promises at the same time,” Senator Wong said.

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“It’s hard to reconcile Mr Morrison’s introduction of a bill his own backbenchers weren’t allowed to see, while he won’t even contemplate promised protections for LGBTQI+ children for another two years - five years after he first made the promise.”

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the 12-month timeframe for the review “allows the ALRC to consider the implications of all the anti-discrimination law religious exemptions in both Federal and state and territory law.”

“Almost every state and territory has exemptions in their anti-discrimination framework with regards to teachers and students.”

Introducing the bill into the lower house on Thursday, Mr Morrison said it was “sensible and balanced” and delivered on the government’s election promises to protect people of faith from discrimination. The bill, which was circulated to government MPs on Tuesday, has divided the Coalition, with moderate Liberals Trent Zimmerman and Andrew Bragg repeating their calls on Thursday for the protections for gay students to be fast-tracked.

“I think this is a relatively simple fix. It certainly doesn’t need a four-month timetable or extensive review. The amendments could be made to this bill that is currently before Parliament,” Mr Bragg told the ABC.

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“The point is that there are people that are gay that are being sacked as teachers today in NSW and in Australia, and we should stop that.”

But other Liberals are urging for the bill to be passed in its current form. Backbencher Julian Leeser, who is Jewish and worked at the Australian Catholic University before entering parliament, said it was important for faith institutions to be able to employ people who reflected their religious ethos.

“If I’d worked at ACU and had been going around and questioning the divinity of Jesus, I think they would be well within their rights to remove me I think that’s entirely reasonable,” he said.

“I see it as a good compromise bill, and that it is quite balanced and reasonable.”

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