Discrimination in religious schools faces crackdown

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Henrietta Cook and Timna Jacks

Religious schools and bodies could soon find it harder to discriminate against employees because of their sexuality or faith.

The Andrews government's revamp of Victorian equal opportunity laws has been condemned as "anti-religious" by faith-based groups, who say it threatens their right to freedom of religion.

Religious schools and groups would still be able to discriminate if they could prove that religious beliefs were linked to a job.
Proposed legislation introduced into State Parliament this week reinstates an "inherent requirement" test that would weaken the powers of Victorian religious bodies and schools to turn away employees because of their sexuality, sex, gender identity, religious beliefs or marital status.

These groups would still be able to discriminate against employees based on these attributes if they could prove that religious beliefs were linked to a job.

The Greens say the proposals do not go far enough and should also protect students from discrimination based on ...
The Greens say the proposals do not go far enough and should also protect students from discrimination based on sexuality or gender. Photo: Virginia Star
While the changes would strengthen protections for employees in non-teaching roles such as gay gardeners, transgender administrative assistants and atheist librarians, it is unclear how they would play out for teachers. Schools might argue that as a community of faith, even the maths teacher must be religious.

Christian Schools Australia chief executive Stephen O'Doherty said the proposed laws were a "draconian attack on religious freedom principles".

"We feel that the Andrews government is the most anti-religious government we have seen in a long time," he said.

Australian Christian Lobby Victorian director Dan Flynn said the changes could lead to Christian schools and churches having to hire people who were opposed to what they stood for.

Catholic Education Melbourne executive director Stephen Elder said it was important that Catholic schools had the freedom to employ staff who supported the Catholic faith. Photo: Virginia Star
"Those organisations want the staff to contribute to the faith ethos of the school, and to be a role model for those beliefs," he said. "Certain expressions of sexuality could be in conflict with the ethos of a church or school."

The inherent requirement test – a key election promise – was introduced by the previous Labor state government and then scrapped by the former Coalition government in 2011 before it came into effect.

Attorney-General Martin Pakula said that LGBTI job hunters had previously been vulnerable to discrimination.

"We respect people's right to religious expression, but not at the cost of equality," he said.

People who felt they had been discriminated against could take their complaint to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal's human rights division, where the religious body or school would have to justify its reason for discriminating.

Independent Education Union general secretary Deb James welcomed the changes, saying they would increase equality in the workplace and strengthen laws that protect workers from discrimination.

Catholic Education Melbourne executive director Stephen Elder said it was important that Catholic schools had the freedom to employ staff who supported the Catholic faith and did not undermine a school's ethos.

"Parents choose to have their children educated in Catholic schools because our traditions are not only passed on through what is taught, but what is practised and what is witnessed in our learning communities."

Victorian Greens' equality spokesperson Sam Hibbins said the changes did not go far enough and should also protect students from discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity.

"The government is ignoring students at faith-based schools who are at risk of exclusion or expulsion because of their sexuality or gender identity."

The Greens have introduced a private member's bill into Parliament that would limit the ability of religious schools and organisations to discriminate against students on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation or religious belief.

Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green said it was important schools retained their independence while "providing a respectful, safe and inclusive environment that is free of discrimination".

Sean Mulcahy, co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby commended the Labor bill for "taking action to protect the rights of LGBT people at work".

 

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